The most popular staff member at this northern New Jersey school never speaks, and usually dozes off around kids.
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But Tyler’s abundant patience and his quiet demeanor — matched only by an enormous powder puff coat — makes him a special member of the team. So school hallways will feel more than a little empty when the therapy dog retires early next year.
There isn’t a student in the K-6 Sandyston-Walpack Consolidated School who doesn’t know Tyler, a 130-pound snow white Great Pyrenees, or his owner and handler, Sussex County beekeeper John Coco.
The two began visiting the school in 2020 to help children navigate returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coco answered an advertisement placed by then-principal Harold Abraham, who was worried about how the youngest students would adjust to masks and plastic barriers on desks for social distancing.
What started as a therapy-dog reading program at the school in rural Sussex County, which is about 45 miles northwest of Newark, later became part of the regular school day.
“John refused to ever accept payment,” Abraham said of Coco’s voluntary work in the school with Tyler. “They have impacted so many lives, and that’s no exaggeration.”
Tyler’s soft coat is a hit
The children immediately took to Tyler for his soft coat — deep enough to bury a 5-year-old’s wrist — and Zen-like calm. The school became a second home, and the temporary visits became permanent, complete with name tags and access to the school for Coco and Tyler.
The two are in school twice a week, visiting every classroom at least once, usually during reading period. Tyler walks with the students during graduation, has his own Facebook page and was recognized by the NJEA, New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union, for his unique contributions.
Word gets around in Sussex County, where Tyler is blissfully unaware of his star quality.
Often invited to community Christmas parties, Coco said he’s met parents who have thanked him for the difference Tyler has made to their children and in one case, to a marriage, when a couple was moved by how their daughter bonded with the dog. Over the years, Tyler and the school were also featured on local and national television.
Coco began fostering Tyler after he arrived at an animal rescue in Boonton, New Jersey, from Texas. The two bonded immediately and Tyler became a “foster-fail” when Coco adopted him in January 2018.
Great Pyrenees are traditionally used to guard livestock and are known for their peaceful nature. Tyler was perfectly placed to train as a therapy dog, said Coco.
The following year, Coco enrolled Tyler for dog training and the experience was fruitful for both of them. Tyler became certified, and Coco now works as a trainer.
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When students know Tyler is coming, their faces light up
In a resource room for first and second graders with ADHD, dyslexia, communication impairments and other learning disabilities, Tyler recently strolled in and sat on the carpet with Coco. The children gravitated toward him from different corners.
“Having Tyler here is not just a benefit for their learning. He’s a huge motivator. When they know Tyler is coming, they’re on. Their faces light up,” said special education teacher Stacey Saporito.
She pointed out a child who was stroking Tyler’s coat. Petting Tyler is particularly soothing for students who struggle with anxiety, Saporito said. “Tyler’s that person these kids feel good about being around,” she said.
In kindergarten teacher Ashley Donaghy’s class of about 15 kids, she said sharing Tyler is a lesson in itself as she directed groups of three to take turns reading to him from their book boxes.
“His presence motivates them to be patient,” Donaghy said.
Coco’s two other therapy dogs will fill Tyler’s role
In September, Tyler was in a classroom when he began to pant and show obvious signs of discomfort. Coco took him to the vet, who diagnosed Tyler with dilated cardiomyopathy — a usually fatal condition caused by an enlarging heart.
“Those are big paws to fill. I wasn’t ready to lose him then. I’m not ready to lose him now,” Coco said.
Medicines and supplements helped enough that Tyler could come back to school, but only until Coco’s other therapy dogs, Charlie and Mel, both Great Pyrenees, can take over.
The kindergartners had missed him too.
“What happened to Tyler?” asked one student.
“He’s been home, he’s not been feeling very well,” Coco answered.
“We talked about it, remember?” Donaghy reminded her students. “Tyler’s getting older, he’s getting ready to retire from reading.”
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Beekeeping farm inspired by movie
A former maintenance supervisor in the Clifton school district, Coco retired in 2016. He was looking for a hobby after he gave up drag racing in 2010 following open heart surgery.
The beekeeping business was inspired by a movie he watched at the time called “Vanishing of the Bees.” After some time with a mentor in order to learn the business, Coco and his wife Donna started beekeeping in 2011.
They bought a 10-acre farm in 2016 in Wantage, Sussex County. The couple now lives at Top of the Mountain Honeybee farm, raising 20 blue-eyed goats, several ducks, some chickens and two donkeys.
“We don’t sit around. Even when I retire from the bee business, I’m going to be working with the dogs,” said Coco, who is 68.
In the school’s yellow-walled lobby he points out a framed newspaper article about Tyler, who elicits hellos from strangers with a gentle nudge of his nose.
“He’s my best friend,” Coco said.