Karli Swope, an Intensive Learning Center teacher at Milford Middle School, has created a unique program that simultaneously offers support to her students and to the shelter dogs she devotes herself to.


For some kids, school does not always feel like the safest place.  Teachers and other adults are constantly making demands with tests, projects, and rules which can be difficult for some kids to adapt to.  In particular, students in the Intensive Learning Center at Milford Middle School, can find the demands of both teachers and classmates overwhelming.

These students often exhibit learning disabilities, behavioral problems, or a combination of both. 

And, while these students may have trouble relating to other kids or to their teachers, almost all students seem to have a positive response to dogs.

shelter dogs, in particular, seem to be kindred spirits for students in alternative learning environments.  Like the students they assist and comfort, shelter dogs are often over-looked or ignored due to their backgrounds or behavioral issues.

However, Karli Swope, an Intensive Learning Center teacher at Milford Middle School, has created a unique program that simultaneously offers support to her students and to the shelter dogs she devotes herself to.

Last May, Swope began working with Safe Haven Animal Shelter, a no-kill animal shelter in Sussex County.  These dogs, all rescued from other facilities and set to be euthanized, share a common bond with the kids in Milford Middle School’s ILC program. 

“These kids are often shunned by the people in the building, the other students, and the staff even,” Swope said. “Likewise, the dogs I bring into the school were once unwanted and set to be euthanized.  You can see, though that they are able to relate to each other and there is an understanding there.”

One student, Alec Guessford, has had a complete turn-around since he began participating in Swope’s program. Swope asserts that Alec seems like a completely different person now.

“The change in Alec when he’s with an animal is just crazy,” Swope said. “He is able to have compassion and empathy whereas when you see him interact with other kids his age or other adults, those qualities just aren’t present.”

Alec recognizes the benefits for himself as well as the benefits for the dog.

“It make me feel good to know that I am helping the dog,” Alec said. “Sometimes, they are stuck in a cage for a long time but when I go to the shelter, I let them out and play with them.  They are really happy to see me.”

Swope’s program benefits other people in the middle school, too.  Two other teachers, reading specialist, Heather Evens, and physical education teacher, Jen Eckman, have adopted dogs they have met through Swope. 

Evans is currently fostering Sweetie, a beagle from Safe Haven Animal Shelter and one of Swope’s therapy dogs, and plans to adopt her as soon as possible. Evans said that she was not in the market for a new dog but fell in love as she watched the kids working with her.

“I knew that she needed a stable home and I just decided that Sweetie had to be added to my household,” Evans said. “She has quite the personality that’s coming out as she’s getting more comfortable. You can tell she was abused by the way she reacts to new people.  She’s very timid and sinks down but once she gets to know somebody, she falls in love with them.”

Principle Nancy Carnevale said that she approved Karli’s program because she’s seen firsthand how beneficial dogs can be for a child’s development and learning. 

“A lot of these kids have given up on themselves and everyone has given up on them,” Carnevale said. “But, then you introduce this dog that needs them and loves them unconditionally no matter who they are, what they did.  They walk into a room and there’s that dog to greet them. Before that moment, the mindset was so negative that we couldn’t get through to teach them. The unconditional support can be a huge moment for a child that finally puts them into a teachable mindset.”