Like most playful pups, Cole the dog, of Millville, N.J., loves playing with toys, getting treats and being cute. But he does it all when he’s not focused on his true passion: helping kids get courage and self empowerment in the face of adversity. You see, Cole is deaf, so he understands what it’s like to face obstacles due to a disability. And for helping others, he’s also the ASPCA’s Dog of the Year for 2023.
Being the ASPCA’s Dog of the Year for 2023
With his ability to respond to sign language and working alongside his human, Chris Hannah, Cole, a pit bull, inspired a unique social-emotional learning program at the Dr. William Mennies Elementary School in Vineland, N.J. Hannah is a music teacher at the public school, and Cole helps him help his students.
“When Cole started in my building as a therapy dog, we started to watch kids’ walls crumble with their shyness, their reservations for creativity, for being who they are and being proud of who they are,” Hannah explained. “I teach in a very low-income socio-economically challenged school district, so to see the way they rallied around him–it was unbelievable to watch.”
The ASPCA’s Dog of the Year for 2023 has been a therapy dog at the school for six years, and students and faculty love him more and more each year.
As a music teacher who works with the entire school population, Hannah created a special program to specifically help kids who are hesitant to speak in class gain courage to express themselves. And of course, his pup partner is part of the program.
“I take kids who are very, very apprehensive to sing or speak in class, maybe they go through speech therapy, and partition off parts of the classroom and the kids sit with Cole,” Hannah explained. “They wear headphones and sing their favorite song. Cole wears headphones too, and the kids sing into a microphone. In their minds, Cole can hear through the vibrations of their voices.”
Hannah recounted a time when one student, Daniel, truly came out of his shell when he got the opportunity to work with Cole during the program.
“Daniel never really spoke in class. He was a very, very reserved, shy child,” Hannah said. “The first time he participated, he said he wanted to sing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ I put the song on, went back to teaching the rest of the class, and the next thing I heard, this little shy child was singing so loud I had to pause what I was teaching.”
Hannah asked his student how he was able to do that, and he responded by saying “I wasn’t afraid to sing to Cole. He wasn’t going to judge me.”
The ASPCA’s Dog of the Year: On the Road
Through Cole the Deaf Dog and Friends Foundation, Hannah and Cole spend their summers visiting and supporting special education summer programs and care facilities across the tri-state area.
“We spend our entire summer touring. We visit special needs camps, adult disability programs and focus on youth disabilities and awareness,” Hannah said.
Cole and Hannah have visited many locations throughout the tri-state area to spread kindness and happiness, including most recently Camp Fatima in northern New Jersey, which provides summer camp and weekend camp experiences for people with disabilities.
“It’s an incredible place. To see the way that some of these children with varying levels of disabilities rally around this dog, and they’re fighting themselves to make their disability their superpower because that’s what Cole did,” Hannah said. “We want these kids to realize that they are just like any other child, they just do something a little bit differently. Cole really empowers children.”
The adorable pup is also a hospice therapy volunteer and the official mascot of the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home. During weekly visits, Cole helps aging veterans find new strength and enthusiasm for life.
Other Humane Award Recipients
Cole received the ASPCA’s Dog of the Year award, and there are four others who received the ASPCA’s 2023 Humane Awards. The honorees received their awards at ceremony in NYC on Oct. 12:
- FARM ANIMAL WELFARE AWARD: Senator Cory Booker (Newark, NJ)
- EQUINE WELFARE AWARD: Saddle Up and Read (Wendell, NC)
- PUBLIC SERVICE AWARD: Officer Jorge Aquino and K9 Mann (Nogales, AZ)
- HENRY BERGH AWARD: Dr. Terry Morris (Durham, NC)
“The 2023 ASPCA Humane Award recipients perfectly represent the power of the human-animal bond and inspire us all to protect, celebrate, and advance the beneficial value of that connection,” Matt Bershadker, president and CEO of the ASPCA, said. “We are honored to celebrate their outstanding contributions to improving and protecting lives in their communities and around the country.”
To learn more about the ASPCA, visit aspca.org.
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