Every member of our Mercy Home family – from coworkers and tutors to dear friends like you –plays a unique and vital role in the mission we all share: to provide a safe and loving Home for children in need. That’s why Mercy Home for Boys & Girls is so proud to welcome our newest team member: Pongo, our working facility dog.

Named after the patriarch pooch in the classic children’s tale “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” Pongo brings guidance and comfort to large groups of vulnerable young people. Here at Mercy Home, the 2-year old Golden Retriever-Labrador mix provides unconditional love and attention to our children as they heal from the pain of their pasts.

A few years ago, Tom Gilardi, Mercy Home’s Vice President of Youth Programs, had a eureka moment about the positive impact of animals after watching some of our young people interact with a coworker’s dog. For example, one kid who had been acting out spent an hour with the dog and suddenly was back on task and in a better mood.

“Here we had concrete evidence of the positive effects that dogs have on our kids,” Tom says. “So many people have good memories of their own pets. It was always kind of obvious that pets are special, good for kids, and good for relationships. Now science has finally caught up with those concepts.”

Today, Tom is Pongo’s certified facilitator. He is responsible for housing, feeding, and caring for the dog, as well as making sure Pongo maintains his knowledge of commands.

“I’m technically the handler, so Pongo lives in my apartment,” Tom says. “I bring him to work with me every day. The idea is for me to hold office hours where we do anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week of interaction with the kids.”

Pongo comes to us courtesy of Canine Companions for Independence, a 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. Canine Companions depends on the support of donors and volunteers to match assistance dogs like Pongo free of charge.

Numerous reports and studies indicate there are many potential benefits of animal-assisted intervention for individuals who have experienced trauma. For example, it can increase feelings of comfort and 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. All of this suggests that Pongo may play a key role in Mercy Home’s program of trauma-informed care. And our kids couldn’t agree more.

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

“I love Pongo! I feel like I’ve needed a dog in my life. Personally, it’s nice to have someone to hold onto,” says Luis, a young man at Mercy Home.”

Having such an intelligent, super-attuned dog onsite, Tom 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,” Tom 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,” Tom 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.”

In essence, Tom says we should consider Pongo as a new coworker.

“With Pongo, it’s almost as if we’ve added a staff member to our team,” he says, “like another tool in our toolbox or source of expertise. I really see Pongo as another intervention for kids in crisis.”

We are so looking forward to the love, comfort and fun Pongo will bring to our Mercy Home family.

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2 replies
  1. Susan Hurst says:

    Congratulations on the wonderful addition to the Mercy family! What a fantastic idea to bring Pongo into the lives of your kids. Having grown up with animals in my family, I know first hand the love, comfort and fun they bring to life. So happy to hear this fun news!

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