Haddonfield Friends School unveils new therapy dog

Students in Haddonfield Friends School’s fifth-grade class spend some quality time outdoors with its new therapy dog, Tova, on May 29. Kindergarten teacher Marietta Hanigan trains these dogs for a period of 18 months before they are given to children in need of physical or emotional support.

Two weeks ago, Haddonfield Friends School received the gift of healing in the form of therapy pup named Tova, whose name in Hebrew means good, or pleasing.

When The Sun visited on May 29, Tova was making the rounds, while fifth-graders were receiving instruction from Marietta Hanigan on how to behave around their new addition. 

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Hanigan, who teaches kindergarten at HFS, has taken it upon herself to train all therapy dogs for “Canine Companions.” Each one under her supervision receives a kind welcome from all students – who are first trained in the dos and don’ts when encountering pups whose eventual purpose will be to assist those who require emotional or physical support. 

“They usually come to us at 8 weeks old, and then we judge the dog’s temperament. Then we expose them to certain things until they’re 18 months old,” Hanigan explained. “This is the sixth one we’ve done at HFS. She’ll be here for another 16 months. I usually get the dogs in the spring, and then I’ll take them home for four months and get them focused on me, and then I’ll bring them back to school.” 

Before Tova is properly trained, Hanigan must teach her at least 60 commands. Aside from the usual “sit and stay” learning, she said there are multiple things to consider about a service dog’s integration into the wider world. 

For instance, a service dog is never supposed to eat table food, so that when it goes into a restaurant, it doesn’t look like it’s angling for a piece of your dinner. A service dog’s nails have to be cut so short so that when they touch the floor, it doesn’t make noise. In addition, the tags on its leash can’t jingle, it should never bark at people or objects, because the dog should be invisible whenever it comes into a building. 

Anything short of that, Hanigan said, and you don’t have a true service dog. 

“It’s becoming a problem because so many people are getting the vests online, but it’s a lot more of an involved process than they think,” she lamented. 

In her classroom, Hanigan has a display of each of the previous dogs she raised and introduced to HFS: Hope, Tyrone, Cecily, Yosemite and Palani. Tova’s arrival to HFS was much anticipated, but a waiting period due to health concerns provided a learning opportunity. 

“Right before she came, she was not feeling well, so we had to delay the arrival for two weeks. That was tough waiting for her, but we had (the kids) do calculations (about height and weight) to anticipate all those things before she came here. It wasn’t just like, ‘here’s the dog.’ They know a lot about her already and those who were afraid have had so much background,” said Hanigan. 

According to Hanigan, HFS had three children who were afraid of dogs: two in kindergarten and one in fourth grade. Upon Tova’s arrival, all three students’ fears melted away thanks to all the aforementioned prep work. 

Beyond a momentary boost in comfort, the purpose of introducing therapy animals at a tender age is for the sake of knowledge and an introduction to emotional intelligence. 

“I have kindergarteners who are looking at people in wheelchairs and instead of saying ‘what’s wrong with you?’ they say, ‘we have a dog, maybe the dog can help you!’ and it makes a connection that was never there before. Kids are curious about these kind of things and you need to build a bridge to get over it. It helps elevate kids at an age when they haven’t had that lesson,” Hanigan said.


Former radio broadcaster, hockey writer, Current: main beat reporter for Haddonfield, Cherry Hill and points beyond.
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