Although Frankie is not the most social dog, he and I have several human and canine walking companions with whom he co-exists peacefully. One of our regulars is MJ and her dog, Raven. During our strolls, MJ told me about a wonderful program that helps at-risk kids and about Raven’s recent certification as a therapy dog. So, with our quarterly Blog the Change for Animals event coming up, I asked MJ if she would share their experiences with us.
Gabriel’s Angels: Pets Helping Kids
By MJ Evans
When we pull into the Boys and Girls Club parking lot for a Gabriel’s Angels visit, the kids line up by my van, eager to say hello to Raven, my Black Lab-German Shepherd mix, and to help carry supplies into the club.
Gabriel’s Angels’ mission is to deliver healing pet therapy to abused and at-risk children, nurturing their ability to love and trust and helping to free them from the cycle of violence. Gabriel’s Angels teams visit children in domestic violence shelters, homeless shelters, group homes, residential programs, targeted school programs—anywhere kids are abused or at-risk. Children served range from infants to age 18.
We usually start with how to meet a new dog, then we might consider what makes a good home for a dog. A group of 7-, 8-, and 9-year olds told me a dog needs help, good people, a good owner, food, love, shelter, training, no hitting, combing, bathing, and regular brushing of teeth.
The comment that brought the blood rushing to my face: “You’ve got to forgive your dog.” The discussion kicked into a higher gear, with kids offering many examples of forgiveness.
The kids all know that Raven’s first family left her on the street and that she lived in a foster home for seven months before I adopted her. Stories of rescue resonate with these kids; they understand hardship and they love a happy ending. It took a year to bring Raven up to speed with her health, and she is still doing special exercises to strengthen her knees, with the help of “her” kids.
Volunteers receive teaching kits with supplies to help kids take care of the dog. The kids use a stethoscope to listen to the dog’s heart, which reminds them that a dog is a living creature. Brushing a dog’s teeth might have a “yuck” factor, but everyone wants to try it, using peanut-flavored toothpaste. The kids also use soft brushes for grooming. Even though some of the children have dogs at home, they crave the hands-on time with their therapy dog. They compete to be the one to fetch Raven’s water, to be first to brush her, to walk her and you-name-it.
These are all examples of animal-assisted activities, designed to help children who’ve been exposed to violence to develop traits such as empathy, respect, trust, and compassion. Many children don’t need any prompting to express their caring natures. One girl was upset to learn that an older therapy dog at the club was limited by arthritis: “I don’t want her to hurt.” We worked with a canine massage therapist to teach the kids a few basic massages to ease that dog’s aches and pains.
Each session involves learning, trying new things, and a big dose of fun. Some of our most popular activities are dog bingo, where you have to know the breeds to win, and puppet shows. Each child makes a puppet and small groups act out typical canine scenes, like taking a trip to the park, being a shelter dog, or being in a dog show. All of our conversations about how to take good care of a dog come into play.
A therapy dog often has a calming effect on a boisterous child. When a withdrawn child gives a command and the dog carries it out, we see an immediate boost in confidence. A growing body of research shows that abused and at-risk children derive particular benefit from therapy dogs.
The Gabriel’s Angels program was founded in Phoenix in 2000, with a Weimaraner named Gabriel who visited a crisis nursery, bringing about dramatic changes in the behavior of kids who had gone through tough challenges. Grant money enabled the group to expand to Tucson and Southern Arizona in 2006. Currently about 150 therapy teams (dog and handler) visit 13,000 Arizona children. Another 40 volunteers join teams to serve as Helping Hands. It is not necessary to have a therapy dog to participate.
Each therapy dog has passed an evaluation with the Delta Society or Therapy Dogs, Inc. Volunteers provide character references and pass a background check with the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
All services are free to clients. Program expenses are covered by grants and donations.
For more information about Gabriel’s Angels, including two upcoming Tucson events, The Unleash the Love Fundraising Breakfast, which will launch “Gabriel’s Angels, the Story of the Dog Who Inspired a Revolution” (May 11) and an information session for prospective volunteers (May 17), see the Gabriel’s Angels website (under “Events”) or call toll-free: 866-785-9010.
Bio: Merrill “MJ” Evans, MA, is a freelance writer in Tucson, Arizona. She has been a volunteer with Gabriel’s Angels since 2008.