WAYNE — Hana knows that the easiest way to acquire close friends is to be still and look pretty.
They will come to you.
“Her size isn’t intimidating,” Susan Chandler said, attempting to make sense of Hana’s popularity. “She’s short, kind of like a dachshund.”
Actually, Hana is a 7-year-old Skye Terrier — a breed so rare that it is regarded as an endangered species. And at Wayne Valley High School, she is cherished almost as if she were the last dog who ever lived.
“She’s a rock star,” said Chandler, the pooch’s proud owner. “I’m just at the other end of the leash.”
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Hana is among several therapy dogs brought to the high school as part of a program conducted in partnership with The Bright & Beautiful Therapy Dogs Inc., a nonprofit in Morris Plains. Students sit with them at lunch hour to mellow out and unwind.
School officials were impressed by the response to the program, so they decided this year to expand it to two mornings per month.
William Cheval Jr., a guidance counselor who oversees the program, said there is still room for more growth. “It helps students to forget about challenges and concerns that they’re facing, even for a brief moment,” he said. “And there’s no reaction by the dogs. They just want to provide love.”
Bright & Beautiful does not require formal training for the dogs, but each must pass a test to be certified.
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The test evaluates behavior and temperament based on certain triggers. Evaluators may shout at each other to simulate an argument, or an evaluator may sit in a wheelchair and gently pet a dog.
On a recent morning, the high school hosted seven pairs of certified dogs and their volunteer handlers in the gym. Students poured in and out in bunches.
Gabriel Santana, a freshman, said he enjoyed being able to “chill out” with the canines.
Sophomore Emma Wolfelsperger said quality time with the four-legged visitors can do wonders for her mind. “It helps me to focus later,” she said. “It gives me a break to just calm down, relax and not worry about school.”
Linda DeYoung, another handler, is a regular guest at Wayne Valley with Gavin, an 8-year-old Sheltie. She helped to start the program there in the 2018-2019 school year with Crystal Olson, a guidance counselor now working at Ryerson School.
“The average person is going to think that you’re a little weird if you want to bring your dog every place,” DeYoung said. “But my dog is well-behaved.”
Gavin’s charming ways are winning over students elsewhere in the district.
At Lafayette School on Laauwe Avenue, he and DeYoung greet students as they enter the building on Monday mornings.
“Who doesn’t like seeing a dog when they walk into school?” said Principal Matthew Kriley. “It’s a comforting thing, and it just adds to our positive climate and culture.”
Lauren Heaney, a teacher at AP Terhune School on Geoffrey Way, invites DeYoung and Gavin to her classroom once per month to let her 15 students read to the dog.
It provides an outlet for them to practice an important skill with no pressure, Heaney said. “If they don’t feel like they’re a strong reader, or they’re struggling, having the dog there is like a friendly zone,” she said.
“If they make a mistake,” she added, “he isn’t going to know.”
And for Gavin’s visit last month — National Poetry Month — students prepared their own verse. DeYoung reciprocated by bringing a rhyming composition to share with them.
“I think that because the kids have taken to it so much, and the pandemic restrictions have improved, I’d like to see Gavin and Miss Linda come more often,” Heaney said.
Gavin became a therapy dog, DeYoung said, because he did not cut it on the dog show circuit. His breeder in Virginia wanted a dog for agility competitions, she said.
“Apparently, Gavin did not go for agility 200%,” she said. “He wasn’t going for Grand Champion.”
Meanwhile, DeYoung was looking for a new therapy dog because her former dog, Polly, was on the cusp of retirement.
Then, her phone rang one day. It was a friend from Virginia.
“We had a meeting of the Shetland Sheepdog Association last night,” she recalled the friend saying to her in January 2017. “And we have the perfect dog lined up for you.”
That is how DeYoung and Gavin became a team. They visit schools and Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff, the New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus and libraries in Franklin Lakes, Glen Rock and Lincoln Park.
“Gavin thinks everyone in the world is his friend,” DeYoung said.
Back at Wayne Valley, John Ladany and his dog, Laddie, a 6-year-old Border Collie, engaged an assembly of curious students.
“For handlers, there’s a lot of pleasure in it,” said Ladany, a retired Wall Street banker from Montclair. “You feel good about it — it’s a connection with the kids.”
And for Laddie?
“I thought that he had the right personality for this,” Ladany said.
“He’s such a noodge,” he then added, as the pup rolled over on its back. “He’s a great dog.”
Philip DeVencentis is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.