December 12, 2016
Tom, Zeke, and Rocco

Tom, Zeke, and Rocco

It is a pleasure for my dogs and me to work with Rocco. For the past three months, Zeke, Gus and I have made weekly visits to Rocco, a young man who lives in Wynnewood and attends the Vanguard School. Sometimes I bring only Gus with me and other times both he and Zeke jump in the car to make the 30- minute drive from Newtown Square to Rocco’s house. Either way, our visits of 45 minutes are times of instruction, fulfillment, curiosity, progress, conversation and joy. It is a time that my dogs and I happily anticipate every Thursday.

Rocco greets Gus with happiness and enthusiasm. His excitement when he first greets him is palpable, but as he has learned, he must always ask the two questions that are critical when approaching a dog. These questions are “ May I pet your dog and where may I pet your dog?  After receiving my answers, he then tenderly and calmly pets Gus, being sure to pet away from the head and primarily on the back and front. During those moments, Rocco speaks quietly as he pets, his mission to keep Gus as quiet as possible as he knows that Gus is in an unknown environment and needs reassurance.

Our next task is for Rocco to brush Gus, combing from the head to the back, using firm but gentle strokes. Since Gus is a hairy beast, there is much fur that emerges from Rocco’s work and after fifteen or twenty strokes, Rocco holds a pile of fur that only a golden retriever can create. Rocco is always proud of this accomplishment, scattering the grooming remnants outside for the birds to use for their nests.

Zeke and Rocco

Zeke and Rocco

Next comes the feeding. For some children with disabilities, this can be a problematic and difficult undertaking as, understandably, they are fearful they will be bitten or they do not like the slobber of the dog’s tongue on their hands. Rocco himself has been struggling with this task, preferring to drop the meaty snack on the floor in front of Gus. Dropping the treat on the floor is just fine, a step in the direction of eventually feeding the dog from the hand. But this day is momentous for Rocco, as without any coaxing, he takes the treat from me, holds the treat in his fist as he lowers it to Gus, and then slowly opens his palm to Gus and shows him the treat. In that instant, Gus politely eats the treat, Rocco wipes his hand on his pants, and we have a gigantic victory for Rocco. This is a breakthrough. This is huge! Well done, Rocco! You are the best!

Our last mission on this cold afternoon is to walk Gus. This is the best time for me, as it is during these walks that Rocco and I get to really talk. He is an inquisitive lad who wants so much to learn.  He asks me – “Does Gus chase squirrels? Why does he chase squirrels? Why does he smell? What does he smell? Does he like to walk? How far does he walk?  Does he like other dogs? What should we do when he sees other dogs?” And the one question that always that always chokes me up – “Gus likes me, Mr. Tom (he has always called me Mr. Tom), don’t you think?” And I always reply, “Rocco, Gus really likes you…so much.” Our walk lasts about fifteen minutes, and when Gus does see a squirrel and Rocco remains calm and steady during that interaction, Rocco tells me, “You know, Mr. Tom, he didn’t chase that squirrel because I stayed calm and set a good example, didn’t I? As you said, a calm voice and a calm body help a dog stay calm. Right? “

We end our session soon thereafter. Rocco, Gus and I. So much that is rich. So much that is right. So much that is good.  So much that is learned. So much that is joyful. So much Nellie’s Schoolhouse. Thank you, Rocco.

I wish you a holiday season filled with happiness and love. To our board, volunteers, donors, families and especially our children, we are grateful. We are truly blessed.


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One thought on “An Afternoon With Rocco

  1. Tina Garzia

    Thank you Mr. Tom for bringing those beautiful dogs to Rocco and sharing Rocco’s story!!!

    Rocco, Aunt Tina is so proud of you!!!

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