Secaucus police therapy dog program partners with Huber Street School

Oakley will be at the school weekly during a trial period to gauge the program's effectiveness

From left to right: Chief Dennis Miller, Zahava Pianko, Principal Rob Valente, Officer Taylor Ensmann, and Mayor Michael Gonnelli.
From left to right: Chief Dennis Miller, Zahava Pianko, Principal Rob Valente, Officer Taylor Ensmann, and Mayor Michael Gonnelli.

The Secaucus Police Department’s therapy dog, Oakley, will now be helping students at Huber Street School relieve stress.

The police department’s therapy dog program has partnered with the elementary school for a trial period to test effectiveness of the new program with students.

Two times per month, Oakley and his owner Police Officer Taylor Ensmann will be at Huber Street School and be present during focused group teaching sessions of approximately five students at a time during the trial period. However, there will be room for further expansion as the program’s effectiveness is evaluated.

“Oakley’s mere presence brightens up children’s days and the Secaucus Police Department is delighted to participate in this program where the sole beneficiaries are the youth of this town,” said Police Chief Dennis Miller. “We pride ourselves on community interaction and engagement and Police Officer Ensmann has taken that bar to new levels through the use of Oakley.”

Using Oakley, the goals of the students will include to: relieve stress and anxiety, increase positive mood and self-confidence, improve socialization skills and executive functioning and assist with sensory regulation. Additionally, resident Stephanie Finelli and her therapy dog Chipper will also volunteer their time to participate in this program.

“I’m thrilled to have Oakley as part of the team and the Secaucus Police Department,” said Huber Street School Principal Rob Valente. “This is an amazing opportunity for our school.”

Lending a helping paw

The joint trial program was begun by Zahava Pianko, Huber Street School’s psychologist. Pianko recognized that the staff and students of the Secaucus Public Schools were faced with many daily challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and other controversial issues this year and sought to help students cope.

Since students struggle with anxiety and other emotional disorders, Pianko found research to support her theory that dogs create comfort and confidence in children enabling them to develop positive socialization skills. Additionally, she theorizes that dogs create a safe working environment for students, thereby increasing their reading fluency skills. Thus Pianko requested the assistance of Oakley to participate in her innovative program, which will be among the first of its kind.

“I think this is a wonderful program!” said Acting Superintendent Daniela Riser. “I know the staff and students are going to love it. This program is starting at a time when we need a little more emotional support any way we can get it. Oakley will definitely bring joy into our lives. I want to thank the Chief Miller, Officer Ensmann, Mayor Gonnelli, and Ms. Pianko for getting this program off the ground!”

“I visit the schools on a regular basis and being with the children is always the highlight of my day,” said Mayor Michael Gonnelli. “I am so pleased that Oakley will be integrated into the school and I am certain the program will be a great success, as anytime Oakley is around Town Hall he lifts our spirits. This is a great cooperative effort to continue to build a strong relationship between our youngest residents and our Police Department.”

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