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At Heeling House dogs help kids overcome anxiety, develop social skills

May 16, 2018

At Heeling House dogs help kids overcome anxiety, develop social skills

When you run a business where your clients run the gamut from canine to equine to elephantadie but you work out of a suburban office park, you don’t assume your neighbors will necessarily understand some of your more unique challenges.

Like clients who have accidents on the floor of the treatment room. Or the need for constant vacuuming and de-furring. Or how in addition to ringing phones and clicking keyboards, the office din might include the occasional woof, baa or meow.

So we here at Animal Ortho Care were pleasantly surprised when Heeling House moved into the suite next door to our Sterling, Va. office two years ago.

Their mission: “To use the power of the human-animal bond to bring animal and children together in new and innovative ways.”

Suddenly, we weren’t the only kids on the block with a rotating array of critters walking in and out of our office.

The brainchild of Kathy Benner, Donna Pfendler-Merkle and Stefanie Gerhand, Heeling House is a nonprofit that uses animals to help improve the lives of children with special needs.

Their programs include Animal Assisted Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy for children with autism and related developmental disorders, social skills groups, an after-school club for teens, literacy programs and summer camps- all of which incorporate therapy dogs. In addition, Heeling House leads dog obedience courses, agility training and therapy dog training.

For all their child-centered programs, the dogs and their handlers work together to demonstrate desired behaviors and skills to participants. If a child has trouble sitting down and staying still, a dog might model how to sit and stay calm. If a child struggles in social situations, a dog might act as a substitute for a peer- playing a game or putting together a puzzle along with the child. Kids tend to be more patient and forgiving to the dogs, and the dogs have endless reserves of patience for the kids.

The dogs are also used as a reward. Children look forward to opportunities to interact with the dogs by feeding them, getting them to do tricks or just sitting with the dogs and petting them.

“We’ve included the animals in that therapy which no one else has done before,” Kathy says.

Having a dog involved with therapy and group programs often helps the children relax and feel happier. When working with dogs, it’s essential to keep instructions simple, clear and clean, Kathy says. It’s also important to ensure the environment is positive, otherwise the dog is less inclined to work.  

As it turns out, these same practices are essential for helping kids, too.

“It forces us to make sure all of the sessions are as pleasant as can be,” Kathy says.

And so far, it seems to be working.

“It’s been very positive. Everyone who has come into our programs has had nothing but positive things to say,” Kathy says.

***

Originally from California, Kathy started her career training marine mammals. She spent five years at Sea Life Park in Hawaii, working with dolphins, sea lions and penguins- a job she says is exactly as cool as it sounds. She started training dogs on the side, too.

Along the way she had two kids and moved across the country to Virginia where she opened up a The Animals’ House, a  doggy daycare, boarding and training facility in Sterling.

Early on in her career, she got involved with training therapy dogs.

In 2013, she started having conversations with Donna, a social worker, and Stefanie, who worked in special ed, about the effect of dogs on children- especially on children with special needs. The trio wondered if they couldn’t pool their expertise to develop a program for kids.

So in 2014 they incorporated and launched a pilot program, bringing trained dogs on visits to children’s therapy centers as well as to schools and libraries.

The programs gained traction. In 2016, they opened their Sterling office and expanded their offerings. Today, staff and volunteer teams visit therapy centers, libraries and hospitals in the area, as well as hosting training, therapy programs, clubs and events on site.

They work with individuals ranging in age from 3 to 18- helping kids on the autism spectrum and those dealing with a range of emotional and behavioral issues including depression, anxiety, ADHD and eating disorders.

In the past four of five months, they’ve decided to buckle down and focus on their most popular programs- their summer camps, dog training and teen programs.

Their weekly social club The Pack, is a mix of middle school and high school-aged kids, some of whom struggle with emotional and behavioral problems, others who just have a passion for dogs.

“I never realized what a huge population we have in our area of teens who are really, really struggling and how much these dogs really are helping them,” Kathy says.

During their Friday night meetings, Heeling House staff and volunteers bring their dogs and the kids learn about how to handle, care for and train the dogs. They also help out with fundraising and learn social skills in the process.

Parents regularly tell Heeling House how much their kids look forward to the meetings.

After a recent meeting, one mom whose daughter was attending for the first time told Kathy, “I have not seen her smile like that in years.”

Kathy has been thrilled to see teens suffering from mental health problems find healing and a voice by working with the dogs.

The team at Heeling House has big plans. Kathy would love to see the center become a one-stop shop for families of children with special needs- housing occupational therapists, speech therapists, psychotherapists and family counseling under one roof.

She’s also interested in launching a Junior Trainers Club for high-functioning kids who have their own dogs to complement The Pack as well as a mentor program.

The dogs seem to have a profound effect on the kids, and Kathy attributes a lot of that to a their high tolerance of all different types of people.

“It can be very, very tough for our human caregivers to remain patient with people who are a bit challenging to work with,” she says. “The dogs never, ever lose patience.”

Want to help?

Heeling House is always looking for help with their programming- there are opportunities for dog owners whose dogs are good candidates for therapy training and even individuals without dogs to help out at events. Click here to learn about volunteering.

Don’t live locally? Learn about how to donate or check out their wishlist on Amazon here.