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Pet therapy program lends a helping paw to young people in youth protection

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Therapy may seem intimidating to some, but when your therapist has four legs, a wagging tail, and is covered in fur, the process might feel a little less scary.

That’s the theory behind Batshaw’s new pet therapy program. It began as a pilot project a year ago, and after months of success, it will soon be permanent, the organization says.

“A lot of times the youth that we work with feel as if they’re not deserving of kindness and gentleness,” said Elana Hersh one of Batshaw’s group home managers.

“The dogs are just there, and they’re loving and friendly. It’s an unconditional support and help that they give them,” she said.

The Batshaw Foundation has raised enough money to hire four pet therapists to run a weekly program at a handful of locations.

“Studies have shown that petting a dog lowers a stress hormone called cortisol and increases oxytocin which is referred to as the 'feel good' hormone,” said Isabel Poulin, one of Batshaw’s pet therapists.

Poulin has worked for Batshaw as an educator for 20 years, and as a pet therapist since the pilot project began.

Since 2016, she has also run her own company called Pawz Thérapie, which aims to create safe spaces for at-risk youth through animal therapy.

“Pet therapy helps many clients and students who suffer from mental health challenges. For example, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation,” said Poulin.

However, not just any dog can assist a pet therapist.

“The dog must have their obedience training as well as be screened by a pet therapist to ensure that they have all the qualifications to work with people in different settings,” said Poulin.

“A dog may be good in the home, but be reactive to high sounds such as school bells or yelling from a youth who is in crisis,” she added.

The therapy dogs have been such a success at Batshaw that several youth have asked for full time, live-in pups. Hersh says the animals could help in a variety of other settings, too.

“It’s not common that a 12-year-old would have to go sit in a courtroom all day. Unfortunately our kids have to go to court sometimes. So if there could be an animal therapy dog at court that could help those kids,” said Hersh.

The team at Batshaw hopes to expand the pet therapy program once more funding is available. 

LISTEN ON CJAD 800 RADIO: Elena Hirsh from Batshaw Group Home Manager joins Elias Makos to discuss Pet therapy, and the benefits it can provide to younger generations.

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