COMMERCIAL TOWNSHIP — Many schools have a class pet.
The Haleyville-Maurice-town School has its own therapy dog, a 140-pound greater Swiss mountain dog named Skye, who also competed in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show this week.
But Skye is more than just another pretty face. A full-fledged member of the small, rural school’s community, he plays an integral role in helping students deal with anger or anxiety, develop social skills, or just practice their reading.
“He’s sturdy, confident but not aggressive, and good with children,” said Superintendent Daniel Dooley.
“He’s like a pony,” said Kyle Gilbert 8, who is just slightly taller than Skye and likes to high-five him.
“He’s just a nice dog,” Kyle said.
While every student gets a chance to interact with Skye, he is there to work.
More than 25 percent of the district’s students have some type of learning, behavioral, or developmental disability. Dooley said he was looking for ways to serve those students within the school so they would not have to be placed in private schools.
He had seen therapy dogs used with special needs students.
“I’m trying to think outside the box,” he said.
Skye got his therapy dog certification with FURever As Friends — Pets Helping People in Gloucester County and went to work. Eleven staff members are also certified as handlers.
Skye’s primary job is counseling, specifically being there to be petted or leaned on as necessary.
“If there is a child having difficulty with anger he immediately calms them down,” said school psychologist Jennifer Machinsky. “Not one child has been afraid of him.”
“Even kids whose parents said they are afraid of dogs are not afraid of him,” said school counselor Allison Kilbride.
Before Skye arrived, Dooley had to convince the school board to let him bring a therapy dog to school. Pineland Learning Center in Vineland, which also uses therapy dogs, did a presentation. Dooley said there were concerns about insurance and allergies, and the vote was not unanimous, but Skye started coming to school last spring and is now a fixture.
Parents sign a permission slip to allow their child to interact with the dog, and most have. A few students are not enthused about dogs, and Dooley said Skye has an innate ability to pick up on emotions and won’t bother a child who is reluctant to interact.
Skye lives with Dooley and his wife, Stephanie and is co-owned with breeders Joe and Carol Neuman of Kismet Swissies in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania through an arrangement with Swiss Kiss Farm in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. The agreement allows Skye to work at the school but also be available for shows and breeding. Dooley insures Skye with the school district listed as co-insured.
Joe Neuman said their arrangement is a bit unusual, but when Skye became available again, Dooley was highly recommended by Katie Markley of Swiss Kiss.
Newman said the Swissies make great therapy dogs because they love people and especially children.
Skye goes to school about three days a week, meeting individually with students and visiting classes. On Friday he stopped in a class where Chad Kaminski hugged him and later followed him out for a goodbye kiss.
“He’s soooo biiiiiiig,” Kaminski said as he wrapped his arms around Skye’s neck. Skye remained unperturbed and plopped down for story time.
Skye next hung out with some first-graders while they read on their own. His name is word number 54 on the class list of 100 words for the 100th day of school.
“He’s a real companion for them,” said teacher Amanda Crescitelli.
“I love him,” gushed Karlee Somerville, 7. “He’s sooooo cute.”
The fifth graders watched Skye on TV during a livestream of the Westminster show. While he had placed in nine previous shows, he did not at Westminster. Neuman said Skye still has a little more growing to do and could do better next year. One of his sister’s did place.
Then it was back to the hard work of being petted and hugged by a school full of fans.
“I wish he was our class pet,” said J’Niesha Pickett, 10.