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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

The Power of Emotional Therapy Dogs for Children: Increasing Connection While Decreasing Stress

Aug 01, 2015 02:51AM ● By Mary Oquendo

Gizmo The Rescue Dog

When you think of childhood, what visions come to mind? Is it any number of idyllic scenarios where a child is loved and has no worries in the world? Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Many children have to contend with the aftermath of school shootings, natural disasters, sudden peer deaths, physical/sexual abuse and unstable home environments. Without intervention, these children can suffer both short- and long-term effects.

One way to help these children overcome traumatic events is with emotional therapy dogs. Dogs offer a non-threatening therapeutic option for children who may be fearful of adults. The very presence of a dog may provide that child a safe harbor. The physical benefits of therapy dogs can include decreasing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increasing the “happy” hormones oxytocin and dopamine and lowering blood pressure. The mental and emotional benefits of the interaction can encourage a child to participate in the therapy, decrease emotional distress, reduce thoughts of alienation, and increase verbal communication and socialization.

While service dogs require extensive training to help with mobility, hearing, sight, medical response, autism and psychiatric assistance, emotional support dogs need little training. They need to have a calm temperament and enjoy being petted by many people while not being easily frightened or overly excitable. Emotional therapy dogs can provide service to individual children or large groups.

Gizmo is a certified therapy dog with Paws For Friendship, Inc. (PawsForFriendshipInc.org), a nonprofit originally founded in 1993 in Nebraska that offers community outreach, mentoring and other therapy pet programs. The barely four-pound dog’s owner and partner, Jen Adams, knew he was destined for therapy work from the start. “Even as a puppy, Gizmo seemed to be in tune with people’s emotions. One of the earliest times he showed us this was one day when we were walking on a trail in the woods. There was a teenage boy sitting against a tree a little way off the trail. Gizmo walked directly over to him and crawled in his lap! I asked the boy if that was ok with him, but he would not answer. He sat quietly as he began to gently pet Gizmo. Gizmo nestled in closer. Since the boy refused to talk and looked comfortable with Gizmo on his lap, I simply stayed near. Soon a woman came walking down the trail. She stopped and introduced herself as the boy’s mother. I explained how Gizmo sat in his lap and wouldn’t move. The woman’s eyes filled with tears, and she explained that the boy had just lost his father in an accident. Gizmo knew.”

Gizmo started his training at a commercial training facility. He began with puppy and basic obedience classes and then passed the evaluation to become certified with Paws For Friendship at age two with a trainer’s help. Three years later, Gizmo and Adams continue to visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes, juvenile detention facilities, group homes, a dialysis clinic and rehab facilities. Gizmo is Hartford Public Library’s Paws To Read dog and the Official K9 Unit of their Security Team. Most recently, Gizmo became the first known therapy dog in Connecticut to join a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).

Adams is currently working toward a master’s degree in human service counseling – crisis response and trauma. She and Gizmo will team up as CERT members to provide psychological first aid to those in disaster or crisis situations when CERT is activated. Their work with CERT might involve visiting storm shelters, sitting with families who are waiting to hear from loved ones in a search and rescue situation, or visiting with families who are displaced after a fire.

Gizmo also makes public appearances to raise awareness for a number of causes, including pet rescue, cancer research, disabilities awareness, children’s and veteran’s charities and more. He has appeared on nationally syndicated TV shows in both the U.S. and Canada, and has his own spot on Pet Radio called The Gizmo Report.

“Gizmo has impacted many lives, my own life included. He found me shortly after a very difficult life transition. Gizmo forced me and taught me how to step out of myself and reach out to others. He taught me the power of kindness and compassion and forgiveness and unconditional love. He taught me that just being me is enough. And he guided me through the darkness into an amazing new light. It’s like his presence in my life woke me up! And I learned just to follow his lead.”

While you cannot always shield your children from the horrors in life, you can help them recover with emotional support dogs like Gizmo.

Mary Oquendo is a Reiki master, advanced crystal master and certified master pet tech pet first aid instructor. She is the co-owner of Hands and Paws-Reiki for All in New Milford. She can be reached at HandsandPawsReiki.com. See ad, page 50.

To learn more about Gizmo and see where he is making his next appearance, visit Facebook.com/GizmosFrens.