On her first day of fourth grade at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Emma Wishneski will bring a special friend with her to class: a miniature stuffed animal version of Jeffrey, a stocky, 73-pound pit bull.
The toy is a reminder of her closest animal companion, a registered therapy dog the 9-year-old has become close to over the last nine months, after tragedy struck her school.
She first met Jeffrey in December, when his owner Michele Houston brought the dog to a Christmas party for Emma’s classmates at Sandy Hook, just weeks after the school shooting that claimed the lives of 20 students and six faculty members.
Emma was fatefully late to school that day, missing the traumatic event because she had a doctor's appointment. Though she did not witness it firsthand, she lost friends and educators in the shooting.
In the wake of that shock, meeting Jeffrey had an immediate impact on Emma. The two quickly formed a bond at the Christmas party, and she stayed with him throughout the entire event.
"It was still a really vulnerable time for her, and she just was comfortable sitting next to Jeffrey," said Emma's mother Marykay Wishneski. "He's strong and I think she just feels safe."
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The next day, Emma asked her mother when she could see Jeffrey again, so Wishneski reached out to Houston to arrange a play date — the first of many for dog and girl.
“I think for her, there's a security in that it's a dog and not another person,” Wishneski said. “Emma becomes free and runs and plays and smiles. It's a very tender thing between the two of them.”
That Jeffrey is a pit bull — a breed commonly perceived as aggressive — was never a concern for Wishneski, and it’s a stereotype Houston is determined to break in her therapy work.
“Both ends of the leash are responsible for the future of these dogs,” said Houston, who also brings Jeffrey to assisted living facilities, hospitals and school libraries to connect with elderly people, the sick, and struggling young readers. A large dog, Jeffrey curls into a ball and rolls onto his back on command, pawing the air with his signature painted nails.
“It all starts with a belly rub,” Houston said. “He meets you, he flops on his back. Then his magic starts.”
Jeffrey’s life could easily have taken a different turn. Two years ago, he was one of hundreds of pit bulls in the New York City shelter system. Like most, Jeffrey was destined for euthanasia — until a New York City rescue group called Bruised Not Broken placed him on their advocacy website in the hope of finding him a home.
That home was with Houston, a hospice worker in Milford, Conn., who adopted Jeffrey hours before he was scheduled to be euthanized in 2010. Realizing Jeffrey’s potential early on, Houston took him beyond obedience training to achieve the American Kennel Club therapy certification.
"He passed with flying colors," she recalled. "The examiner, he said if you don't make this dog a therapy dog it would be a shame."
Today, Jeffrey — the "Positively Peaceful Pit Bull," as he is known — has more than 700 Facebook fans and a full schedule of therapy visits in the tri-state area.
But even working dogs need to play, and Houston says Jeffrey and Emma’s bond is a true friendship, for both of them.
“’Emma’ is a special word in our house,” Houston said. In April, Jeffrey came to Emma’s ninth birthday party, decked out in a hat in the shape of a birthday cake, and let her friends climb all over him.
Today, Emma dreams of becoming a veterinarian. After meeting Jeffrey, she even helped train the Wishneski’s family dog, Jedi — a Wheaton-Doodle they adopted from a shelter — to be a therapy dog through Newtown Strong, a non-profit created to help those affected by the shooting.
“I think that she loves that Jeffrey is a therapy dog — that he has a job and that there's something special about him,” Wishneski said.
And as Emma prepares to return to Sandy Hook Elementary on Tuesday, at its new location in a different building from where the shooting took place, her bond with Jeffrey will be there in the background, a source of strength and happiness.
“Emma has a smile that could light the world, and I feel like we used to see that smile a lot more, but it's definitely still there,” Wishneski said. “And when she's with Jeffrey she doesn't stop smiling.”