The Beyond Grades Podcast Episode 6: How a Deaf Therapy Dog Transformed This New Jersey School

podcasts, storytelling

Listen to the full episode here:


In this interview, I am joined by Chris, the owner of Cole, a deaf pit bull who works in a New Jersey elementary school as a therapy dog. Chris describes Cole’s impact on students and staff and how it has defied the stereotypes of his breed and disability. Since he began working at the school six years ago, he has grown an audience worldwide, garnering millions of views and followers on his social media way more than me. Ultimately, his impact has reached far outside of his school, from influencing other schools to consider dog therapy to just putting a smile on TikTok viewers’ faces, I hope you enjoyed this episode. Thanks for listening to the Beyond Grades podcast.


So I saw Cole’s story on TikTok, and I was like, that’s so cute. And I instantly thought I wanted to share that. So if you could just start and tell me a bit about yourself and your background as a teacher and then a bit about Cole and his background and how you two came together.


So I’ve been an elementary school music teacher for this is my 22nd year. Cole is just turned six years old. He’s a certified and registered therapy dog, and this is the fifth school year he’s been working at my elementary school. I decided to adopt him when he was about five months old because of tas born deaf. 

I have a nephew going very closely that is also born deaf. So when I met the little puppy, it was kind of like an instant connection that I had made. And when I started bringing pictures of the puppy before I had even brought him home because he started to get fixed and everything, my students started to ask some pretty incredible questions when they saw pictures of his deaf puppy, and they started talking about what special needs means, what the word disability means. They had never met a deaf person, let alone a deaf dog, before. So it just kind of sparked up a lot of interesting questions and conversation in my classroom. 

Special needs have a very special place in my heart because I had a niece that was born with down syndrome and I had passed away my nephew’s big sister. So it was kind of heartwarming to hear these children taking an interest in the concept of the two words of special needs and what it truly can mean.


So when you first got cold, did you plan on bringing him into the classroom?


I did not. It all kind of organically happened. So the day that I was able to bring him home was about a week and a half after I had initially adopted him. I had to leave school a little bit early, and I asked my principal, who’s a dog lover, ‘can I please leave just a little bit early so I can go pick up the puppy from the shelter? Because they close at four and we don’t get out of here until four, and it’s about a 20 minutes ride.’ And she said, ‘leave now. And the only thing I ask is that you stop here before you go home.’ So I started driving. I drove to the shelter and picked up the puppy. He was still kind of out of it from getting neutered. And then the very first place that I ever stopped, even before going home, was my school. And I pulled up out front and I walked him into a lobby. And there was a lobby full of kids and staff members who were already excited to meet this little deaf puppy. So that kind of kicked all of it off. My administration had seen the way that the kids were responding to just the pictures of the puppy.


So then a couple of weeks later, we had an assembly at school with the SPCA that Cole came from. So they asked if I would speak a little bit about it. And it was about raising money for a dog-a-year contest that they do. And I realized that day that when we were doing that little assembly together and he was standing at my feet, I only had him for about two weeks, and we already started the bond very closely. He wasn’t phased at all about being around 600 kids. They started asking questions in the auditorium, and the puppy never lost his focus on me. And it was just incredible the way that all the kids got to meet him that day. They all got the pet in and he just had a very, very special way. 

So I knew once we started formal training, I realized that I wanted to make him a therapy dog to work in school. The only issue we had was the stigma of the breed that he is, which is a pit bull mix, and that carries with it a lot of stereotyping and stigma, and that’s something that we had to kind of face and sort of overcome. But it’s all part of our mission, and it’s all part of our message and our journey.


How was he when he initially met the kids and your students?


To say the word amazing, I feel like I’ve redundantly used the word amazing. He came in and when the kids were meeting him at that particular assembly and they were walking out the door and each kid was getting to scratch his head, and he would just look up at me to make sure that everything was okay, Daddy. And it was kind of a monumental moment. And then when he came into my classroom and I had a first-grade class at the end of the day, and he spent the rest of the day at school with me, and he came in, the kids just sat in a circle. And every time a kid would approach him, he would just either sit or lay down, and the kids would pet him. And then once the kids left, he would kind of turn into a goofy puppy again. But anytime he was around children, he had a whole different kind of demeanor about him. Even when we were playing and they were playing tug of war. When a kid had the toy, it was a different kind of way that he was then when Daddy had the toy.


It’s like he knew instinctually. And for a dog like Cole to work with literally over 600 kids every single day, five days a week, having that kind of mannerisms and that kind of ability to take a lot of surrounding things that are happening and different environments that we are in as a team, he’s able to not be fazed by any of it. So he was very special from the get-go and very unique in the way that he naturally was gravitating toward children. And I would watch very closely for signs of body language and, and any kind of fear, and he just like it was almost like he was reveling in the fact that he is around children. And five years later, as a therapy dog, he is still the same way.


Do you think how he is has something to do with him being deaf or do you think that’s like, his just personality to begin with?


I think it’s a combination of both. I think in a noisy environment like an elementary school, being deaf is a profound advantage, believe it or not. Unfortunately, so many therapy dogs or so many dogs are overlooked because they’re deaf, because of the time and the work that it takes into creating a very special bond together and a bond of trust and a bond of, I’m going to only put you in safe environments, and I’m always going to be here as your advocate. So and has a profound advantage in an elementary school-type environment. Or we’ve visited colleges and high schools and middle schools, and they are allowed, they are chaotic. And it’s nice to have that noise factor taken out of the equation. And I can create that focus whenever I need it from him, so I don’t have to worry about if someone drops a drum on the floor by accident and it would frighten a hearing dog. It kind of takes that out of the equation. And the cool part is the way that kids are learning about we always use the line. In Cole’s case, his disability became his superpower so they are legitimately taking that internally within themselves and truly believe that they can overcome anything.


How does his presence, how has it helped the students and him being a therapy dog and also developing their understanding of disability?


Cole has literally changed the environment. Bar Building he started a year before COVID and the very first week that he was here. The first days of school in an elementary school are very emotional for a lot of children, especially kindergarten and first graders, because a lot of them have never been in school or they’re coming from a preschool, and now they’re around bigger kids. And it’s a lot of crying, it’s a lot of I want my mommy, which is completely understandable. We had a student on Cole’s very first day on the job, full time. A kindergarten student came in and literally laid in the middle of the crowded hallway and pulled his jacket over his head and would not move. And it was kind of the, well, let’s get the therapy dog and see what he can do. And it was kind of the first opportunity to show what a therapy dog can do for a school. And the principal couldn’t get him up, the assistant principal couldn’t get up, the guidance counselor, security guard, like nobody could get this kid up. And they called us down, and I walked down and Cole laid down next to the kid, and Cole literally put his paw on top of the boy’s hands, and all of a sudden you see the little boy’s other hand come out from underneath his coat.

And then I just slid the leash underneath of the boy’s chest and he stood up and grabbed the leash, and we walked the class and the tears were instantly gone. And that very next day, that same boy helped me with another kid who was upset. So he developed a confidence within himself because he overcame something that scared him. So it was coal that was the catalyst for all that to even take place. So having coal in the building and having a therapy dog in general is remarkable. We take it to another level we like to say, because having a dog that was born with special needs or was born different. We have Cece, who is Cole’s sister, who was also born deaf. She’s about to turn two years old in March. She’s a certified therapy dog. She gives Cole one day a week off and she comes in usually on Wednesdays, and the kids love her. Then she’s also born deaf. Then we have Alice, who is training to be a therapy dog, who has cranial facial disfigurements. So she has a cleft palate, she’s got one eye, she was born deaf, and she has a tremor condition with her head constantly wiggles.

So I think we had Alice for two days, and I was showing students pictures of the new puppy, and one of my little girls who had cleft palate surgery when she was she had, I think, seven surgeries. She stood up in front of her class and told her whole class about her surgeries because she found the comfort in knowing that Alice was born the same way she was. So it’s more of like utilizing those to our advantage. For kids to kind of understand how special differences truly can be, whether they were. We should celebrate our differences and share our similarities is the tagline we always use. But it’s giving kids a different sense of strength because they’re willing to open their hearts up in a different way. And it’s working for adults, too. It’s not just the kids in the building. We notice a big mindset change, even with the staff, so it’s extraordinarily beneficial. And then we take because Cole is a very nationally known pit bull, we get a lot of anti pit bull, crazy people, but we kind of turn it all around on them. We like to say we flip it onto them and we talk about things like discrimination and the way that people are judging coal by the COVID of his body and the way that he was born.

So we face a lot of adversity, but we’d like to take that adversity and teach children about overcoming stereotypes and persevering through judgment and to not judge something by.

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