At Harwich Elementary School, Learning Has Gone To The Dogs

By: Kat Szmit

Tom and Jane Wilson, owners of therapy dogs Toffee and Garbo, tell students at Harwich Elementary School about the dogs and what they can do, including helping kids feel safer in a learning environment.


HARWICH – There's something different about learning at Harwich Elementary School. Once a week it goes to the dogs, and the teachers, students, and even the visiting pups couldn't be happier about it.

Each Friday a pair or more of tail-wagging, soft and fluffy therapy dogs trots along just ahead of their owners, ready for quick classroom visits before a longer stop in the school's reading room, where students pat, hug, and even use the dogs as pillows while books are read.

On Dec. 14 Tom and Jane Wilson of Chatham brought their dogs, Toffee and Garbo, for a visit, first stopping by two kindergarten classrooms before heading to the reading room. In each classroom, students were introduced to the dogs through a brief demonstration of their skills (Toffee balances cookies on her nose), before being allowed to pat them. In the reading room, students read aloud to each other or the dogs before settling in to listen to assistant principal Sharon Keller-Hughes read a story about dogs at Christmas while children patted Toffee and Garbo.

Jane originally became a therapy dog owner while living in Connecticut and volunteering for a local hospice organization.

“I started working with Toffee in Connecticut,” said Jane. “She was actually the very first hospice dog in this group that I worked with. By the time we left Connecticut there were around 12 teams going to hospice.”

Jane began training Garbo, whose mother is Toffee, in similar fashion, and now between them the dogs have 16 years of visits to hospice patients and elementary school students.

“Toffee's been doing visits for nine years and Garbo's been doing visits for seven years,” said Jane. “I love dogs and I think they give a lot of love back to people. They really love just being hugged, and they love the little kids.”

“Jane's first experience with hospice was when her father was ill, and she appreciated what that service brings to families,” said Tom, a former teacher. “Even before she did the dogs, she was a hospice volunteer who would go and visit people and develop friendships with them. I can remember coming home and her telling me how she'd play cards with someone for a few hours. That experience and her love of dogs led her to try and start that in Connecticut.”

After retiring to the Cape, the Wilsons wanted to continue their therapy dog work, first obtaining the necessary training and certification from Therapy Dogs International, which has a branch in Dennis. Once the dogs were ready to go, they began inquiring at area schools. They now visit schools in Chatham, Harwich, and Truro.

“It's a lot of fun. In Chatham we go to the Pre-K and then the reading specialist,” said Tom. “The Pre-K kids are so adorable. We take them on little walks around the room where they get to hold the leash, and the teacher reads a story to the dogs and the kids. It's just a great experience.”

Beyond simply offering a child the opportunity to snuggle with a furry friend, the dogs help students with social-emotional challenges to feel less anxious and stressed, which in turn allows them to concentrate more on learning.

“It has helped their reading and their social-emotional skills,” said Keller-Hughes. “So many children are impacted by trauma. They need time to feel relaxed and connected and the dogs do that. When they are relaxed and connected they're learning. They are able to read better. Their fluency rates are better.”

“They bring joy to the students,” said Jane. “They light up. It's kind of a learning experience about how to treat dogs and behave around dogs, but also these guys give so much love out and get so much love back. People ask us why we do it, but we get more out of it than the kids do.”

In some cases, students are either fearful of dogs or have never been around a dog, so the visits offer a chance to interact with them safely so that children can learn that many dogs are friendly.

“Over the years that we've done this we've had students that refused to come in, but by the end of the year come in and sit with the dogs,” Jane said. “The other accomplishment is, we've been in schools where kids have never met dogs, so they learn that whole social skills experience. You can watch the little kids interacting in a way that, I think the dogs enhance communication skills.”

Both Toffee and Garbo have had Canine Good Citizens training, as well as obedience training, with their hardest test being the “leave it” test in which treats are placed at varying distances away from the dogs, who cannot eat them until given a specific command. During visits, students see this in action, and are taught to always ask if they can pat someone's dog, offering a hand to sniff beforehand.

But it's the transformations of the students that interact with the dogs that Keller-Hughes has seen that make the visits more than worthwhile.

“It's like a spell comes over these kids,” she said. “I see these kids at other times of the day and they're not relaxed or they're not happy and are experiencing anxiety. These dogs lessen that so well. It's magical.”