The children at Sandyston Walpack Elementary in Sussex County look forward to school every Friday. That's because, since November 2020, they've been getting a visit from Tyler, a 4-year old, 151-pound certified therapy dog who takes part in reading and writing lessons with them.

The Great Pyrenees is a "gentle giant," often sporting a top hat and necktie, said Principal Harold Abraham. He said started the "Dog Tales" program as a way to help the kids cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic and offer them a much-needed extra level of support when it came to their social and emotional learning.

Tyler being read to by a student at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
Tyler being read to by a student at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
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He reached out to a local therapy dog organization that put an ad out for the school. The next day he had 10 dog handlers reach out to him. After conducting interviews, Abraham said he knew it was a match when he met John Coco and Tyler.

Coco is Tyler's handler and has had the dog since he's a year old. Coco, who is a commercial beekeeper and owns a farm in Wantage, said Tyler is a rescue from Tyler, Texas with a very calming and docile personality.

Tyler with a student at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
Tyler with a student at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
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During the pandemic, Abraham saw kids being dropped off to school with their dogs in the car and noticed the strong bond between them. So he wanted to make sure a program like this would be put into place.

Abraham also was a kid who struggled and so now as an adult and educator, he wants to make sure no child falls through the cracks. The "Dog Tales" program helps with that.

Tyler's role is to join reading and writing lessons, provide comfort and motivate the students in K-6 grades simply by just being there. Abraham said the kids love to show off their reading skills to Tyler in a judgment-free zone, which is so important.

Tyler with staff and students at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
Tyler with staff and students at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
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Tyler has had such a huge and positive impact on the students.

"Tyler has helped us create a warm and less stressful environment for our kids and teachers during a very, very stressful time," Abraham said.

The Great Pyrenees has been an outstanding addition to the school. Abraham said the kids love coming to school which plays a huge role in student achievement and with emerging readers, they are improving their reading levels frequently.

A student hugging Tyler at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
A student hugging Tyler at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
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The attendance rate at the school is at an all-time high because of Tyler. Abraham said this speaks volumes to the type of programs they have there and the types of lessons the teachers are offering because many schools haven't seen that level of success. "That's something we are really proud of," Abraham said.

Emerging readers, both special education and general education students have struggled during the pandemic. Many of these students have drastically improved their reading skills and jumped to independent reading levels since the program with Tyler began, he added.

Thumbs up from a child reading to Tyler at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
Thumbs up from a child reading to Tyler at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
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Abraham said 40 school districts around the country have reached out to Sandyston Walpack asking how they can create similar programming.

"I can't say that we're the first school to have a therapy dog coming out to their school but I do think we've done it very differently than most. So as opposed to a therapy dog coming in and interrupting curriculum and instruction, we've embedded Tyler within our curriculum and instruction. So it's been a tremendous experience for our students and teachers and it's been sustainable because of that approach," Abraham said.

Richard Bozza, executive director at the New Jersey Association of School Administrators said he knows of a similar program at the Mary Kay McMillin Early Childhood Center in Berkeley Heights. Timber, an Australian Labradoodle has been a fixture at the school, working with students at the Early Childhood Center since September 2016, according to TAPintoBerkeleyHeights.

A child reading to Tyler at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
A child reading to Tyler at Sandyston Walpack Elementary (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
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Abraham explained that when kids come to school normally, they feel pressure. But when they feel less pressure, they're inclined to do well. So the idea is to minimize that pressure. Having a therapy dog in the classrooms allows that to happen. So students who were apprehensive about reading to their fellow classmates, Tyler helps them to relax and show off their skills.

Although Tyler is hard at work. he is having a blast, Abraham said. He lets the students pet them and makes his way to every student at every workshop.

While Tyler is only at school on Fridays, Abraham hopes to expand the program in the new year. The goal is to have Tyler come in one other day mid-week to help kids in counseling and help them achieve their behavioral goals.

Besides going to the elementary school on Fridays, Tyler also visits nursing homes, hospitals and library reading programs. Coco said Tyler sleeps a lot when he's at home on the farm and follows him everywhere. But when it's time to go to work, Tyler gets excited.

Tyler listening as a little girl from Sandyston Walpack Elementary reads to him (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
Tyler listening as a little girl from Sandyston Walpack Elementary reads to him (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
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Why does Tyler wear a top hat and necktie? Coco said he brought the dog to a pre-kindergarten program in Clifton one day and the children were afraid of Tyler, simply because of his massive size. Coco wanted to do something to make Tyler seem less intimidating so he went online and found a site that sold hats for dogs. He ordered Tyler a top hat and a tie, and the next time he went to the school, the kids were all laughing, thinking he was adorable. So now, the top hat and necktie are staples to Tyler's work wardrobe.

Coco loves the feedback he's been getting from parents about Tyler's influence on their children's reading, writing and basic learning skills. Some have told him that after the kids read to Tyler in school, they often come home, prop their own pets on the couch and read to them.

"So we have a positive impact and that's what I'm looking for. People ask me how much I get paid. I don't get paid. I get paid watching the smile on their faces and seeing how they're improving with reading. That's my payment," Coco said.

Tyler listening intently as a Sandyston Walpack Elementary student reads to him. (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
Tyler listening intently as a Sandyston Walpack Elementary student reads to him. (Photo Credit: Lisa Lehman)
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Nina Vassallo, a parent of two boys at Sandyston Walpack Elementary said Tyler has made such a huge impact on her children's reading and writing skills.

Her kindergartner, Archie suffers from ADHD and anxiety. Tyler has made the child excited to go to school. Vassallo said Tyler calms her son and makes him less anxious, which in turn, makes him feel more comfortable in a classroom of 28 other kids. With Tyler's warm, welcoming and calming personality, Archie takes his time reading and he reads better as a result.

Vassallo's older son, Bear, a fourth-grader never really liked reading either. He's more of a math kid. But with Tyler, Bear gets so excited to read to him and the dog's presence has helped Bear with his overall learning, which she says is invaluable.

Vassallo, who also volunteers in the school, said she's seen the positive impact Tyler even has on the adults.

"When you see Tyler, you feel better just after hugging him. He's calm and relaxing and you feel better, less stressed, and more focused," she said.

Besides Tyler, Coco also has 7-month old, 80 pound Great Pyrenees at home named Charlie. He hopes to have Charlie certified by May so he can be a therapy dog in the school as well.

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