Twice a month, Amy Ballen brings her two Keeshonds to visit the children at one of the United Methodist Outreach Ministries' New Day Centers for the homeless in Phoenix.
The fluffy gray dogs, Bo and Sonny, are swarmed by kids upon entering the play area. "A lot of them just love to hug them. They're like walking teddy bears," Ballen says.
Bo and Sonny are more than playmates though. They are part of a pet therapy team called Gabriel's Angels. Simple acts like touching the animals, or giving them food or water, can help the children learn about unconditional love and respect for life.
The non-profit Gabriel's Angels was founded three years ago by Pam Gaber, who named the program after her own Weimaraner because she felt the dog had a gift for working with children in crisis.
"The children that we deal with frequently don't want to trust adults because of their circumstances, but they'll learn trust again through the therapy dog," she says. "In some cases, this is the very first time this child ever experienced an attachment, a true attachment, one that does not lead to disappointment."
Pet therapy has been used to treat adults in hospitals and retirement homes, but Gaber chose to focus her teams' efforts on younger people, from infants to 18-year-olds.
"We know there is a very special connection between children and animals, and we know we can help develop that compassion and empathy and trust because animals and children are very much alike."
The dogs visit children who are abused, at risk of abuse or are in crisis, Gaber says. The nondenominational program serves children in homeless shelters, crisis nurseries, domestic violence shelters and teen group homes, she says.
Darlene Newsom, director of United Methodist Outreach Ministries, notes that the children have experienced trauma or violence in their lives, and seeing "the gentle side of the animal" helps build their trust level and self-esteem. "We don't have all the total answers here (in) working with families, so working with Gabriel's Angels provides us that partnership and collaboration we otherwise could not provide to the family."
There are plenty of squeals and smiles when Ballen's pets visit the shelter's day care for 4- and 5-year-olds. "I have two very sweet dogs, and I thought it would be fun to share them." She lets a boy take Bo's leash and says, "Are you walking the dog, or is the dog walking you?"
Dogs must be at least a year old and certified by a pet therapy program such as the Delta Society. They should tolerate children and be predictable in their behavior with basic obedience skills. There are no breed requirements. Cats can also be used in therapy work, but none are currently part of Gabriel's Angels. Gaber reports only one incident of a bite so far - a child who bit the pet owner.
Phoenix is the only city with Gabriel's Angels, and 100 volunteer teams of adults and pets work almost every day in the city and surroundings. Gaber is planning a book to teach others how to implement the program, and she says she hopes more cities will try this approach to changing lives.
"If we can take these therapy dogs and think of it as a wedge into that cycle of violence by teaching that child reverence for life, when they do become adults they are taking care not only of their pets, but their family."