Commercial Township School District therapy dog heads to compete in Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Deborah M. Marko
PORT NORRIS - Known to be calm and self-confident, a Commercial Township School District certified therapy dog competes Tuesday at the 141st Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show to practice what he teaches.
“I look at it as a positive way to expose our community and our kids to something they normally wouldn’t have a connection to,” said District Superintendent of Schools Daniel Dooley, who owns Kismet Fire in the Skye.
“Don’t be scared,” Haleyville Mauricetown School first-grader Karissa Hutchinson wrote on the good luck poster she made in class Monday for the hometown hopeful. “We are proud of you.”
The Greater Swiss Mountain dog is on a winning streak, collecting 10 Best of Breed ribbons in his last 11 dog shows.
And that’s not even his day job.
Most of the time, Skye, as most call him, is in the school district library encouraging reluctant readers to read aloud or in a guidance office helping an overwhelmed youngster find a way to cope. Time with Skye is also an earned reward.
After researching the role of therapy dogs in education, Dooley was eager to bring the program to his schools that serve more than 550 students in elementary and middle school.
“We have a 27 percent special education population, we have students with some significant needs,” he said.
Once he developed a plan, Dooley needed a pup. Doing his homework, he determined the Greater Swiss Mountain dog would be a perfect for what he had in mind.
“They are firm, they are confident but they are never aggressive,” he said.
In September 2015, he reached out to breeder Kismet Swissies of Birdsboro, Pennsylvania, and was put on a waiting list.
“I was No. 7,” he said, but a female had a litter of six, meaning he would have to wait awhile longer.
Aware of Dooley’s good intentions, the breeder and co-owner, Swiss Kiss Farm, offered him 13-month-old Skye, who had a “super personality and was great around people” at no cost.
“I talked it over with my wife and the Board of Education,” he said, securing affirmative votes from both in April.
With the adoption official, Dooley picked up his family’s 89-pound new addition and admitted to initial reservations during the drive home to Franklin Township.
“He still had all that puppy energy,” he said. “He’s jumping all over me; he’s big, he’s strong, and I’m thinking how is this going to work.”
Dooley had to introduce the dog to his wife, Stephanie, who had never owned a dog, and a student body from preschool to eighth grade.
On the way, he stopped at his mother’s farm in Bordentown to let Skye burn off some excitement. The dog settled down and was ready to settle in.
“Then I took him home to the wife,” Dooley said.
Immediately, Skye socialized with students and earned his therapy dog certification in October through FURever As Friends — Pets Helping People in Gloucester County.
Dooley wanted others at the school to become Skye handlers to expand the dog’s role.
“I hoped we would get five or six and the number just kept growing,” he said. The tally of Skye handlers is up to 11.
Working with youngsters, Dooley sees a change in Skye.
“His movements will become significantly slower; he’s not assertive at all, he’ll lie at their feet, stand next to them but no sudden movements at all,” he said. “That’s something that was not taught, that was something that was innate in him from the beginning.”
Guidance counselors employ Skye to help break down barriers, encourage communications, offer security and offer unconditional acceptance.
Some days, students will ask to join Dooley and Skye on a outside stroll.
“They begin to talk about how their day is going, what’s bothering them and why they had to come see me,” he said, calling Skye a positive distraction.
One day, a distressed student locked himself in a bathroom stall.
“He came out for Skye,” Dooley said. “It may not be for every child but for the ones who have that connection, it’s a strong tie for them and it is something real and significant.”
Any costs associated with Skye are funded by Dooley.
“He eats very well,’ Dooley said.
This year, Dooley opted to apply his philosophy for his students to the pet: “Be the best that you can be.”
Skye’s previous co-owners asked Dooley if he would show the dog to see how he did.
“He was of show quality,” he said. “It didn’t mean much to me at the time.”
Ribbons and rosettes piled up and Skye moved up the rankings, making him eligible for Westminster, which Dooley had only seen on television.
Skye, accompanied by a professional handler, is headed for the judge ring and there's a lesson in that, Dooley said.
The superintendent said he wants Skye "to become the best version of himself that he can be and not to hold him back,” he said. “So if he can go win Westminster, let’s go win Westminster.”
“I think the same thing for our students,” he said, hoping Skye journey serves as an inspiration. “You work hard and cool things happen.”
Dooley, his family and Skye, now 140 pounds, headed to New York after school dismissal Monday with the students' handcrafted cards and posters wishing their hometown contender the best of luck.
“I'm making a poster for Skye’s competition,” said kindergartner Dylan Fisher, using a marker to write “Do your best.”
“He’s going to be competing against a lot of dogs,” Dylan said. The show features 2,500 dogs representing 202 breeds.
School officials plan to hook up the broadcast to several classrooms for Skye’s fan club viewing as he takes Ring 5 in a category that also includes Golden Retriever, Siberian Husky and Tibetan Mastiff.
Should Skye win Best of Breed, he will compete in Best of Working Dog Group at Madison Square Garden, which will be aired during the 8 to 11 p.m. broadcast Tuesday on the FS1 cable channel
Winners move up to the Best in Show, which determines the top dog.
Whether he wins or loses at Westminster, Dooley points the dog shows aren’t Skye’s primary role. The dog will continue to visit hospitals, classrooms and libraries.
Skye’s calling will remain the same, “to make a difference in someone's life or make a little kid’s face light up as he comes walking around the corner,” Dooley said.
Deborah M. Marko: (856) 563-5256; firstname.lastname@example.org