Local organizations using dogs to help students in their care

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Local organizations using dogs to help students in their care

The power of dogs to help reduce stress and increase joy is being used to help young people at two local institutions — Loyola University Chicago and Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.
Tom Gilardi, vice president of youth programs, guides Pongo, Mercy Home for Boys and Girls’ working facility dog, as he plays with Rashaun in the courtyard of the West Loop campus on May 7, 2018. Gilardi is Pongo’s certified facilitator. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Santos, Loyola University’s therapy dog, makes the rounds at the Richard J. Klarchek Information Commons, 6501 N. Kenmore Ave., on May 2, 2018. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Santos checks out the camera. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

The power of dogs to help reduce stress and increase joy is being used to help young people at two local institutions — Loyola University Chicago and Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.

Loyola adopted its first therapy dog, Tivo, in 2012. He is now retired and the university has Santos, which means “saints” in Spanish.

“We had always talked about trying to find innovative ways to destigmatize mental health and we know that animal therapy has proven to have that impact,” said Joan Holden, director of Loyola’s Wellness Center. “We were one of the first campuses across the country to have a therapy dog.” 

Santos was adopted last summer from Orphans of the Storm shelter and was trained as a therapy dog at TOPS Kennel. Santos lives on campus with Jesuit Father Scott Hendrickson in Regis Hall.

The school deliberately chose a shelter dog to work with.

“The university is committed to social justice and social justice applies to animals as well,” Holden said. “There are a lot of animals in shelters that need to be adopted.”

Wellness Center staff, who are all trained mental health professionals, take turns bringing Santos around campus for “Sit With Santos” sessions. He even has his own Facebook and Twitter accounts (@sitwithsantos).

During a May 2 visit to the Information Commons on Loyola’s Lake Shore campus during finals week, students flocked to Santos, petting him, taking photos and getting kisses from him. 

“Whenever I’m with him students come up to him and immediately express all these big, positive feelings like ‘I love you, Santos,’” said Robin Berman, senior health educator and advocacy coordinator. “We have students tell us they look up where Santos will be and come and find him.”
The dog gives the staff an opportunity to check in with the students to see if they are OK, Berman said. 

Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, a residential program for children who don’t have safe home environments, sees the same thing with their facility dog, Pongo. Last September, they brought the trained and certified facility dog to live on campus.  

“In providing the care that we do for children, particularly children who’ve suffered trauma, we always try to do two things. We look at new ways that we can foster a calm and healing environment. And we’ve seen the studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of animal-assisted interventions for those who’ve suffered trauma. So we felt Pongo would be a great addition to our overall therapeutic program. He does help our young people become more relaxed and open, which assists the healing process,” said Father Scott Donahue, president and CEO of Mercy Home. 

Tom Gilardi, vice president of youth programs, is Pongo’s facilitator. He lives on Mercy Home’s West Loop campus with his family and now Pongo, a 2-year-old golden retriever and Labrador mix.

The idea to get a facility dog came after volunteers brought dogs certified to work with kids to campus and staff witnessed how being around the dogs calmed students who were “hyped up” and raised the spirits of those who were down, Gilardi said. 

“We just started talking about it and thought we should get a dog for Mercy Home that could be here all of the time,” he said.

They found Canine Companions for Independence, which trains dogs for five types of assistance to humans, one being “facility dogs” like Pongo who are trained to work in health care, visitation or educational settings. 

Gilardi and Mercy Home went through the group’s thorough application process that took almost two years for approval. Gilardi had to commit to a certain level of care for Pongo and ongoing training. In September 2017 he trained at one of their facilities in Ohio where he was paired with Pongo. 

Pongo stays with Gilardi in his office during the day and greets the children when they come home from school. He joins the children for other activities and playtime and also attends the house meetings in the various residences. 

“He’ll sit there with the kids and hang out. They’ll rub his belly and talk with him,” Gilardi said. “Dogs have a special way with people. He just brings love into anything he’s about.”

Pongo has had extensive training and certification to work with people. He doesn’t bark or jump on people so he doesn’t scare the kids. Pongo has his own enewsletter and Instagram account (@dogsofmercyhome). 

“His temperament is unbelievable. He’s so mellow and loving. He draws people to him,” Gilardi.

Pongo is also trained to help calm children during stressful situations. 

In one instance a student was upset and crying and Pongo went over to her and put his head in her lap. 

“If things get kind of heated or crazy, he’s trained to stay mellow,” Gilardi said. 


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