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As a dog owner, you know a wagging tail and constant cuddling companion is beneficial to your mental health, but there’s science and programs that back that knowledge up!
“Neurobiologically, there is a release of oxytocin (one of the brain’s happy chemicals) around animals,” explains Deanne Leung, the Clinical Coordinator at Stepping Stones Counselling Group.
Leung formed Stepping Stones in 2006 alongside her co-therapist, a dog named Seemore.
“I wouldn’t do what I do without the dogs,” she says matter-of-factly; specializing in child trauma, you can understand why.
Seemore (named aptly to remind Leung to “see more” therapeutic pathways with her clients) retired after supporting clients for 9 years, and Murphy the Bernese Mountain Dog stepped in in 2014.
The dog therapy program has grown to include Nava and Punim, a pair of Golden Mountain dog sisters, along with their handler Samantha Levin.
Stepping Stones primarily serves kids and teens, but has expanded to include services for the entire family.
“The dogs are an incredible ice breaker in making everyone feel comfortable,” says Levin, as Nava and Punim sleep quietly at our feet. “We are mindful to match the dogs personalities to our clients, and we make sure the dogs get breaks in between heavy sessions because they take on a lot of that energy.”
The dogs have also proven helpful in lifestyle skills development as they encourage and offer unconditional support in a way humans simply can’t.
“[The dogs] are incentive and reward in one; from tackling a tough school subject to practicing social skills that don’t come easily to some children. They make us less scared of failure and open to the idea of learning without fear.”
Both Levin and Leung say they would love to see the program expand, eventually, to include a variety of dogs.
“I really want a pitbull in here,” says Levin, hands clasped together. “It’s great to see kids interact with an animal that’s maybe a bit stigmatized, like some of them have been.”
The new baby at the Kirschner location is a grief group focusing specifically on parent loss due to death.
“Unless it is due to a crime, there is no government funding for therapy for the kids, and proper processing early on is so important,” explains Leung.
The aim of the group is to simply bring children and teens together who have shared the heart-breaking experience, providing a safe space to do activities, pet the dogs, and talk about what’s on their minds.
“We want this program to outlive us,” says Levin. Currently, the team is seeking community sponsorship, ensuring the Gentle Connections group remains accessible and free to those who truly need it.
For information on how you or your business can help, email [email protected]