Meet Chewbacca, Clifton Schools' Therapy Dog
This year, the Clifton Public School district welcomes a new, and exceptionally huggable, staff member…Chewie. Short for Chewbacca, Chewie is a seven-month-old hypoallergenic Goldendoodle and the school district’s first therapy dog. His owner/handler is Assistant Superintendent Mark Gengaro and they are both very excited for the new school year.
Gengaro, who started his school career in special education, was serving as the district administrator for Climate and Security several years ago and running the PBSIS program when he and colleague Jessica Tremble started talking. Gengaro and Tremble, who is now the Supervisor for Counseling and Student Services, thought that having a therapy dog in the district would be a great asset, particularly for students with special needs and those in some sort of crisis. At that point, it was no more than casual conversation and a dream, Gengaro said. The timing just wasn’t right to try to make it happen.
Following the hiring of new superintendent Dr. Danny Robertozzi, Gengaro saw an opportunity to try to bring this dream idea to life. Robertozzi was receptive, he said, and for a few years, they tried to set some money aside to allocate for this purpose. Each year, that money ended up being needed elsewhere for security or counseling issues. The final push to secure a therapy dog came on the heels of a personal loss when Gengaro lost the second of his “man’s best friend” last October. He figured that if he were the therapy dog’s owner, he’d have the best of both worlds - a new best friend and an amazing addition to the Clifton school district. “There's nothing better as an educator than walking into a classroom and seeing a child's face light up. So I said, you know what? Let's do this.”
“Doctor Robertozzi has been the most amazing superintendent. The word ‘no’ has never come out of his mouth with any crazy idea I've had. Whether it's ‘let's play rock'n'roll music at a new teacher orientation’ or ‘let's build a welcome center,’ or ‘let's get a therapy dog,’ he just says yes.”
There are of course plenty of policies and regulations to consider when introducing a four-legged friend into the district, and Gengaro said that Administration has been working with other districts that have successful therapy dog programs. They’ve also been talking with people who are writing dissertations on the benefits of therapy dogs with special needs students, English language learners, and even adults. “So we're not reinventing the wheel,” Gengaro said, “we're just kind of adding Clifton tires to it at this point.”
After considering the options, the district decided that the best course of action would be to get a dog from an organization that specializes in training service animals. Pride and Prejudoodles, located in Virginia, actually breeds their dogs from certified therapy, service, or emotional support animals. From any given litter, they quickly identify the puppies with the needed intelligence and temperament to become therapy dogs and set them up with a trainer. Chewie lived with a professional dog trainer for the first three months of his life before he went home with Gengaro. Once at home in New Jersey, the trainer taught Gengaro everything he needed to know in order to continue with Chewie’s development. He learned how to hold the leash, how to give basic commands, and the pup’s daily schedule. “His day is wake up, play, walk, nap, train, rinse, and repeat. He got about an hour of training a day when he was with the professional trainer. We're down to 30 minutes at this point because he still has to be a puppy,” Gengaro said.
Gengaro worked with Jessica Tremble and Jen Bergman from Counseling, Heather Rotolo from the Special Education department, Paula Raygoza, the PBSIS Coordinator, and Val Kropinak and Erin Zmuda, who are both curriculum supervisors in determining how Chewbacca would work in the district. His number one job, Gengaro said, is to assist with any student or staff member in crisis. Other districts have needed to use their therapy dogs for this purpose only a handful of times a year but it is the one scenario that would take precedence over all others.
Other plans for Chewbacca include spending time with the various children in self-contained classrooms for children with special needs. This is one population that is sometimes overlooked when initiatives are introduced and Gengaro intends to make sure that this isn’t the case this time. He also hopes to use Chewbacca as an incentive connected to the district-wide PBSIS program. “What better prize than having Chewie come to your class for a story or you and two friends getting to have lunch with Mr. G. and Chewie and then go for a walk around your building?” Gengaro asked, his face lighting up with the very idea.
Chewie has a very cozy crate in Gengaro’s office and a matching one at their house. He walks on a short leash while he’s training, to allow Gengaro the greatest control over the dog. As part of his training, Chewie has been introduced to many of the adults who work at School 6, the Board of Education building. He is universally adored, even by people who claim not to love dogs. Before he can meet and interact with students, however, waivers need to be collected. This will allow families to indicate allergies or to opt out of interactions with the dog if their children are afraid. Emergencies accepted, students and their families would be alerted to a Chewie visit in advance, allowing time for alternate arrangements to be made at school if needed for a specific child.
Gengaro was practically bursting with pride and love when talking about Chewie, whose hair is similar to human hair and is low-shedding, making him less likely to create issues for allergy sufferers. This was a key part of the selection process. “Everything that went into him was thinking about our kids, thinking about our staff. I probably would have not gotten a Goldendoodle myself. But this was for the kids. He looks like a teddy bear. He looks a wookie,” Gengaro said, smiling.
He continued, “I have to thank the Board of Education because when you come up with an idea like this, there's always a lot of questions…and rightfully so. Judy [Bassford] was the biggest supporter of all this. She's the chair of the Policy Committee.”
The real vision, Gengaro said, is to eventually have an “army” of therapy dogs…ideally, one for each school. For now, Administration is busily preparing for the new school year and finalizing policies and procedures for introducing Chewbacca to the students. Keep your eyes on news from the district in the coming days and weeks as the school year gets underway, and watch for more information about this newest member of the #OneClifton team…Chewbacca.