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Canine Coworker Brings Comfort to Kids

Canine Coworker Brings Comfort to Kids


Mark Schmeltzer, Director of Communications

Pongo the Facility Dog is Mercy Home for Boys & Girls’ Latest Therapeutic Innovation

CHICAGO, February 6, 2018 – Mercy Home introduced the newest member of its caring professional staff. Pongo, a 2-year-old Golden Retriever-Labrador mix, will serve a formal role in the Home’s therapeutic program for the young people who live there, many of who have experienced significant traumatic events. Pongo will provide comfort, healing, and even education for the young people with whom he is expected to interact over the course of his scheduled seven-years of service at Mercy Home.

Dogs and other animals have been used periodically in therapeutic programs at the Home in the past, but Pongo is the first full-time, live-in animal specifically chosen and trained to work with Mercy Home’s young people. Tom Gilardi, who oversees the Home’s therapeutic programs for youth and who serves as Pongo’s handler, was impressed by witnessing the impact that past interactions with dogs at Mercy Home have had on the young people who live there. Gilardi on behalf of the Home approached Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a national nonprofit organization that has bred, raised, and expertly trained assistance dogs since 1975. Their dogs are trained in over 40 commands designed to assist people with disabilities or to motivate and inspire clients with special needs. The dog was matched with the Home free of charge thanks to the support that donors provide to CCI.

Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI’s) have been a widely accepted component in mental health and therapy, with more recent peer-reviewed research indicating positive outcomes for individuals who have experienced trauma. Dogs are the species most often employed in AAI’s for trauma in which specially trained animals promote feelings of calm and comfort in individuals suffering from trauma-induced anxiety. Dogs used in therapeutic settings reduce feelings of loneliness and stress responses that children and adults can develop from living in threatening conditions. Interacting with animals has also been shown to facilitate social interactions, encourage mindfulness, and stimulate overall positive emotions.

Mercy Home continuously evolves its program of trauma-informed care and explores new resources to have the most impact on those it serves. “With Pongo, it’s almost as if we’ve added a staff member to our team,” Gilardi says, “like another tool in our toolbox or source of expertise. I really see Pongo as another intervention for kids in crisis.”

Mercy Home youth are already benefiting from their interactions with the Golden Retriever.

“Whenever I see him, he makes me feel better than I’m feeling,” said one resident. “If I’m really down or feeling depressed, when I see Pongo wagging his tail, it means he’s happy, so I feel happy.”

Another said, “I love Pongo! I feel like I’ve needed a dog in my life.”

Having such an intelligent, super-attuned dog onsite, Gilardi says, also provides learning and enrichment opportunities for kids at Mercy Home.

“Helping the kids teach and refresh Pongo’s skills and commands will also be part of the program. I’m the primary trainer, but giving a kid the sense of empowerment to ask Pongo to do something will have an impact,” Gilardi says. “A lot of our kids come from backgrounds where they get ignored.”

Also on Pongo’s agenda: Helping our kids overcome learning disabilities and their fear of dogs.

“A lot of our kids come in years behind academically,” Gilardi says. “They’ll be able to read to the dog, which is a proven therapy for kids who have dyslexia. Plus, a lot of kids are scared of dogs in their neighborhood. Pongo can help relieve those anxieties.”

About Mercy Home for Boys & Girls

Mercy Home for Boys & Girls (www.mercyhome.org) has been a solution for kids in crisis since 1887. Through its residential, aftercare, and mentoring programs, Mercy Home offers a safe home, emotional healing, education, and life-changing opportunities for more than 700 young people every year. It gives children who have suffered abuse, neglect, poverty and even abandonment the therapeutic, academic and vocational support they need to heal from the traumas of their pasts and build success for their futures. Mercy Home is 100% privately funded and operates at three locations in Chicago – a home for boys on its near West Side, a home for girls on its far South Side, and a home near its southern lakefront for former youth residents who are transitioning to independent adult living.


Source:  O’Haire, M.E., Guérin, N.A., Kirkham, A.C., & Daigle, C.L., (2015). “Animal-Assisted Intervention for Trauma, Including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” HABRI Central (Purdue University). Retrieved from https://habricentral.org/resources/52067/download/hc_brief_trauma20150825c.pdf

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