LOWER TOWNSHIP — Molly walked slowly down the hallway at Lower Cape May Regional High School on Tuesday morning and was greeted by just about everyone she passed. Students stopped to say “hello,” some commented on her beauty, while for others just the sight of her gave them a big grin.
Despite her popularity, Molly isn’t a student in the district. She is a therapy dog, owned by former teacher Karen Wadding and her wife, Kirsten Miller, a teacher at Cape May County Technical High School. Wadding has been bringing her dogs to schools around Cape May County for the past five years in hopes of relieving student anxiety and stress and promoting better education.
“The kids, a lot of them don’t know how to express when they’re overwhelmed,” said Wadding. “When they see a dog, that levels the playing field as far as letting them relax and decompress.”
It’s not a new concept: Therapy dogs have been used for years in hospitals, nursing homes and educational settings for the positive social and emotional effects they can have, which are supported by research. But their use in education has been expanding.
“It’s a big initiative associated with social and emotional learning specifically here in Atlantic County,” said Absecon Superintendent Dan Dooley, who owns two therapy dogs, Skye and Hope.
Dooley began using the therapy dogs in 2016 as superintendent in Commercial Township, which has a special education population of nearly 30 percent and is one of the most economically depressed towns in Cumberland County.
“Before you knew it, our program went from one day a week to five days a week, and we still didn’t have enough time,” Dooley said.
Dooley was working on his dissertation on social and emotional learning through Seton Hall University and came across research that supported the use of therapy dogs for children with special needs, such as those with autism spectrum disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“That really resonated with me because of the level of severity that some of our students were at,” Dooley said.
In his new position at Absecon, Dooley has found the school population has different needs. In a brochure he sent home to parents, he details the research on therapy dogs in schools showing increases in attendance, decreases in anxiety, improved learning outcomes on reading and writing, and increased confidence.
“Oh! So cute!” exclaimed one student as Molly walked by Tuesday at Lower Cape May Regional.
“I can’t not pet a puppy when I see one,” said another, who bent down to snuggle Molly.
A 4-year-old black Labrador mix with gentle eyes and ears that flop forward, Molly is deaf, so she doesn’t respond to verbal commands. Many of the students at Lower Cape May Regional have learned the signs to communicate with her.
Wadding brought Molly into one classroom, and the students gathered around. A student used his hands to sign to the dog to sit and gave her a big hug.
Out in the hallway again, another student said her day was “made.”
“They lower blood pressure, they help calm the kids,” said Wadding.
She also brings her dogs to Lower Township elementary schools, Crest Memorial School, Middle Township elementary schools and has visited Ocean City High School’s wellness center, as well as area hospitals and nursing homes.
Lower Cape May Superintendent Chris Kobik said there was no pushback from parents or the school board when Wadding proposed Molly be a part of the school. He said the therapy dogs help bring kids to a state of relaxed alertness, where they are shown to learn best. Molly and Wadding’s three dogs, also black Labrador mixes, also visit the middle school.
“She targets certain days, days before holidays, before exams, if there is a crisis,” said district Director of Curriculum and Instruction Joseph Castellucci. “Kids know when the dogs are in. They gravitate toward them.”
Castellucci said he sees a definite connection between the students and the therapy dogs.
“Today, we hear a lot about teen anxiety, so it’s a soothing solution to those issues,” he said.