ABSECON — The local school district has two new employees. But unlike the faculty and staff members, the new additions walk the halls on four legs.
Skye, a 4-year-old Greater Swiss mountain dog, is one of two therapy dogs the school has introduced to help students improve in specific areas from behavior to reading skills.
“He’s honestly one of the sweetest dogs I’ve ever met,” said Jessica Torcicollo, the counselor at Emma C. Attales Middle School. “I think the kids love him. I think the staff lights up when they see him coming down the hallway. It’s just a great addition to our school.”
The Board of Education approved Skye and his sister Hope as therapy dogs in October. They now see about 200 students three days per week.
Superintendent Daniel Dooley, who is also the dogs’ owner, said the dogs’ mission is to help students who are reluctant readers, students with disabilities, students in therapeutic counseling settings and students with disciplinary concerns.
Torcicollo said she has already noticed improvements in her counseling sessions with Skye.
“If kids have anxiety or behavior issues, they come to me, and if Skye is with me, he really helps calm them and it’s a more comfortable setting. It kind of feels like home to them, some of the kids say, so they open up a lot easier,” she said.
Dooley said he’s noticed an increased enthusiasm from readers now that Skye has been added to the students’ weekly library program.
He’s also noticed that students with behavior issues seem to “deescalate” or work harder to stay out of trouble so they can come work with Skye.
Skye and Hope are both certified therapy dogs through FURever As Friends, a nonprofit organization based in Gloucester County.
Skye has completed more than 200 site visits to places such as hospitals and nursing homes, and Hope has completed 85. Skye also worked in Dooley’s previous district of Commercial Township.
Dooley, who said he’s always been a dog person, first learned the importance of therapy dogs when his father got sick and asked to see the family dog.
“I just saw the connection that they have with people and then saw the connection it had with children, and it’s a pretty immediate connection and really helps us work in the same direction as a school.”
Best in Breed
When Skye isn’t working as a therapy dog, he moonlights as a show dog.
Last year, he was invited to compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show and ended the year with more than 30 Best of Breed wins, leaving him ranked the No. 5 dog in the country within his breed.
“I try to watch every single one he’s in because it’s just awesome to see that my coworker, who’s a dog, is on TV,” Torcicollo said.
Skye competed last Saturday in the National Dog Show, which aired Thanksgiving Day on NBC.
He won Best in Breed but did not advance in the Working Group, in which he competed against 30 other dogs, said Dooley, who was at the show with Skye.