The Rise of Chewbacca - Clifton's Therapy Dog Goes to School


“The first week of school was nothing but a rousing success as we got the opportunity to have Chewie visit multiple schools and classrooms!” crowed Assistant Superintendent Mark Gengaro and owner/handler of the district’s first-ever therapy dog, Chewbacca.

Affectionately nicknamed Chewie, the district’s furriest new staff member has already been busy meeting both students and staff. Since the first day of school, Chewie and Gengaro (the “less important guy holding him,” as Gengaro says) have visited CCMS, WWMS, CHS (staff only), and Elementary Schools 3, 4, 14, 16, and 17 and plan to reach every school in the district by the end of the month. The reactions have been “priceless,” and Gengaro is loving the joy, smiles, and excitement noted by students and staff alike as they make the rounds. Gengaro works with building administrators to determine which classrooms are "must visits" (high priority) and he works from there. The majority of principals have been focusing on the special needs population; students who may need a little extra love and attention, especially at the start of the new school year.

One thing Gengaro is working on with these early visits is gauging the 7-month-old pup’s stamina. It is his responsibility as the dog’s handler to pay close attention to signs that Chewie has had enough for the day so that he isn’t worked too hard. Like any good parent, it comes down to knowing your “kid” and being able to read their body language. Gengaro said that one sure sign that Chewie is tired is that he is slower to respond to the command to get up (from his resting position on the floor). So far, they have been able to spend time with anywhere from 6-10 classes per school visit.

Gengaro typically begins a classroom visit by asking the students to “follow Chewie’s lead” as he is given the command to sit. This makes introductions easier on everyone, and having the children on his level makes it a more comfortable experience for Chewie. Working toward the goal of using visits with Chewie as a PBSIS (the district-wide positive behavior initiative) incentive, Gengaro then asks the children a series of questions, such as, “Who would like to…”

  • have Chewie sit near them, or lay under their desk as they work
  • read to Chewie
  • have a special lunch with Chewie
  • go for a walk/play fetch

Once nearly every student has their hands up, Gengaro explains that there are two simple things that students can do to earn Chewie Time...1. be a model student by listening to staff and performing well academically, and 2. follow PBSIS building-specific expectations.

He then fields questions from curious students who want to know all about Chewie - how old he is, what kind of dog he is, what tricks he can do. If you’d like to learn more about Chewie and this wonderful initiative, see this story.

“To see the excitement on the faces of students and staff was a reminder as to why we chose education as a career path,” Gengaro said. “We are beyond excited to drive the Therapy Dog Initiative and are looking forward to bringing joy to students and staff across the district!”

Gengaro also shared that the district has started a Facebook page called "The Adventures of Chewie" so that the community can keep tabs on all of his adventures. It’s just getting started but please check it out!

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