Dogs, kids work together in therapy at Gabriel’s Angels in Phoenix

Gabriel’s Angels has been helping children with therapy animals for nearly a quarter-century.
Gabriel’s Angels has been helping children with therapy animals for nearly a quarter-century.(Courtesy: Gabriel's Angels)
Published: May. 1, 2023 at 12:24 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) Sunday, April 30, was National Therapy Animal Day and one Valley institution, Gabriel’s Angels, has been helping children with therapy animals for nearly a quarter-century. Founded in 2000 by Pam Garber and her Weimaraner, Gabriel, therapists and animal handlers have been working with at-risk children using trained therapy dogs.

Animal, or pet therapy, is focused on helping individuals suffering from trauma or disabilities through the use of animals, who with their handlers instill a sense of confidence and empathy by focusing on the human-animal bond as a vehicle for treatment. Pet therapy teams consist of the animal and the handler. The animal undergoes training and must be registered through Pet Partners or Alliance of Therapy Dogs. The dog must be at least one year old to complete the training.

“Our mission is through the life-changing power of pet therapy; we enhance the social and emotional development in vulnerable children,” said Michelle Martonicz, Central Arizona Program Manager. Martonicz is in charge of recruiting pet therapy teams to organizations with vulnerable children, which means the children are at a greater risk of experiencing physical or emotional harm.

One of Gabriel’s Angels programs focuses on child literacy since pet therapy can help with verbal communication and motor skills. Animals, Books and Children (ABC) is a program where pet therapy teams mainly visit schools, “where we help improve each child’s fluency and confidence, and motivation to read. These teams visit second or third graders every week for 12-14 weeks, 20 minutes per child,” said Martonicz.

The positive potential benefits that pet or animal therapy can provide children are enormous according to some experts. “Animals have specific characteristics that facilitate our interaction with them, attract our attention and motivate us to care for them,” said Camila Cavalli, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the University of British Columbia. Children can feel a connection to the dogs during sessions because “they may work as distractors from negative situations and provide companionship,” said Cavalli.

Experts also say, however, that animal or pet therapy should be tailored to each individual since it is “not intended as a sole therapy, but as a complement to other approaches,” said Cavalli. Pet therapy is one way to offer support to vulnerable children, but specific situations need to be assessed for each individual child.

“I’ve been going to the same school on the west side for five years. Every week, we have the same three children come in individually, and read to Scout for 20 minutes each,” said Lisa Levey. Scout is Levey’s dog, who happens to be a registered therapy dog. Levey is Scout’s handler, and the two have been volunteering as a team for over five years.

Levey says Scout is able to provide a non-judgmental space for the kids, which makes the biggest difference. Opening up allows the kids to “get more in touch with their feelings. They can tell their hopes and dreams to the dog, or their fears, knowing the dog would always sit there and just listen,” said Levey. This freedom that the child feels to speak openly allows them to build confidence and focus on the present moment, reducing any stress or anxiety that may have been present.

The bond formed between humans and animals is what makes pet therapy admired. An attachment is formed, which “many of these effects have been proposed to be mediated by the oxytocinergic system, given the known effects of the hormone oxytocin, both in bond formation and a stress reduction,” said Cavalli. Oxytocin is a natural hormone that every person has. It has the ability to regulate emotions, influencing feelings of trust and empathy. It can also aid in helping children develop social skills. Because oxytocin is released through interactions with dogs and children, it provides these positive impacts in the children.

While dogs and their handlers are an integral part of the therapy, professional staff is needed as part of the therapy process. “If we work with a behavioral health center, our goal is always to have the handler and the dog work alongside their paid staff,” said Melissa Steimer, CEO of Gabriel’s Angels. Steimer joined the organization in June of 2021. She explained that the handler does not need any knowledge of being a therapist, rather they work alongside the staff of the organization they attend.

Another program that Gabriel’s Angels participates in is called the Children Animals Program Education (CAPE). “This is a little more curriculum based for upper elementary to middle school. I recruit a team, and we talk about the differences between the separate programs, assess the dogs and a team that makes sense,” said Martonicz.

Pet therapy teams are completely voluntary. Gabriel’s Angels offer pet therapy teams to schools and shelters for free.

“Therapy dogs are not considered service dogs under the ADA and don’t have the same legal right to access in public spaces,” according to the American Kennel Club website. Therapy dogs must be trained and insured to help non-profits, but this does not grant them the same legal rights that service dogs have.

“We get money from events but that is 40% of our budget, we also get it from individuals giving, tax credits, and we are the most centric dog/animal related therapy,” said Steimer. The next event this year will be in October which aims to spread awareness about pet therapy teams and the ability for pets to help kids. Steimer mentioned that their organization largely focuses on dogs helping the kids, which makes them stand out from other common animal therapy such as horse therapy. Gabriel’s Angels has locations in Phoenix and Tucson.

Although the dogs must be well-behaved and enjoy human contact to become a registered therapy dog, there is always the possibility that a dog can hurt a child. “Here at Gabriel’s Angels, we have not experienced any bites, and we haven’t experienced any children mistreating the dogs either,” Martonicz said. The nonprofit also has an “umbrella insurance policy in place,” Steimer said, to be safe.

“There’s more demand than there is supply for the pet therapy market,” said Martonicz. Due to the lack of pet therapy teams, and the surplus of students that would benefit from this kind of therapy, Gabriel’s Angels prioritizes Title 1 schools which are focused on at-risk children since they could benefit the most from animal or pet therapy.

One of the challenges faced by staff at Gabriel’s Angels is that some children may fear dogs. “Some of these children don’t have a relationship with dogs at home like the handlers do. Sometimes they understand the dog to be tied up to a doghouse outside all night, or the dog is used as a punishment for some of these kids, or the animal is not being treated well in front of the child,” said Martonicz. Thus, learning each child’s experiences with dogs is a necessity before arranging for pet therapy. If a child has a negative impression of dogs, the handler is made aware and eases the dog more slowly into the initial therapy sessions. However, this pet therapy can give a child insight into dogs and perhaps why they are called a “human’s best friend.”

“The kids always love giving Scout a treat after their session is over,” said Levey.

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