A Child’s Best Friend

January 8, 2014 |
A Child’s Best Friend 2

A Gabriel’s Angels doggie volunteer gets its teeth brushed. Interacting with the dogs helps children learn the values of empathy, love, trust, understanding, self-esteem, respect and tolerance.

At four years of age, Tatiana’s life had been one filled with violence, abuse and neglect. Needless to say, it wasn’t surprising that when she found herself transplanted to a crisis nursery she had absolutely no desire to interact or open up to any of the caring staff or other children that now surrounded her. She spent her days quietly reserved, scared, scorn and detached from the possibility that any good could exist in her life. That was, until a loving and nurturing Weimaraner named Gabriel approached her one day and nuzzled his way into her arms.

“She took his leash and introduced him to every kid in there. She lit up and transformed in a way that she hadn’t before,” says Gabriel’s Angels CEO and founder Pam Gaber. “When I left she looked at Gabriel and asked when he was coming back and I told her that he’d be back in one dog week. So I came back as planned and she lit up and ran towards him screaming ‘Gabriel came back!’ The staff turned to me and said, ‘You don’t get it do you? The minute you left last week, she told us that Gabriel was never coming back.’ At four years of age she had already learned how to shield herself from disappointment. The staff there told me that that was the first healthy attachment Tatiana ever had.”

What began with one faithful gray dog in 2000 has now turned into a substantial healing force for abused, neglected and at-risk children in Arizona. Now 175 pet-therapy dogs strong, Gabriel’s Angels serves over 13,000 children across Arizona including 30 agencies locally: Casa De Los Niños, Emerge Shelters, Gospel Rescue Mission, Springboard, Boys and Girls Clubs, amongst others. Utilizing these loving canines to re-teach children how to love and be loved, the trainers use activities such as brushing the dog’s teeth to instill seven core behaviors – empathy, love, trust, understanding, self-esteem, respect and tolerance.

“Many of the children who come to our crisis nursery are experiencing incredibly toxic stress and drama-filled lives and often times the first being they will open up to and trust and show their love to are these animals,” says Casa De Los Niños CEO Susie Huhn. “We can see the transformation immediately for some of these kids who won’t open up with humans at the shelter because not only do the animals give the kids love, but also it enables the kids to show it back.”

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Augie, a Gabriel’s Angels doggie volunteer, offers a paw/handshake during a visit.
photo courtesy Gabriel’s Angels

Each of the therapy dogs have gone through extensive training and are certified through national organizations before they can become a part of a therapy team. Any dog and owner can apply to join the organization, which hopes to steadily increase their numbers to reach more children. The children visited at the shelters are typically broken up into groups of six to eight children, although Gabriel’s Angels also offers individual therapy sessions for special cases.

“What you have to keep in mind is that we’re working in cycles of violence. Most of these children are at risk and come from really tough circumstances and most of them have suffered some form of violence,” says Gabriel’s Angels Director of Development MeMe Aguila. “If you don’t show a child different things than they have learned they won’t understand them and that cycle of violence perpetuates. Wrong habits are developed from core behaviors that they are exposed to at a young age because of their situation. Our goal is to provide a child with those core behaviors so they can go on to become a successful adult.”

The organization all started by accident after Pam Gaber quit her high-powered corporate career and decided to do something for her community that would serve those in need. After volunteering at a shelter for children, Gaber asked if her puppy Gabriel could attend the children’s Christmas party and her breakthrough experience that day made her new life path obvious. And while Gabriel passed away in 2010, he alone was able to reach 10,000 children and his legacy lives on through the many dogs that are now following his lead.

“This agency started by accident, but it continues with unbridled purpose,” says Gaber. “These dogs are teachers. To learn to bring a dog water is no big deal, but for these kids it is. For them to realize another being is in need and have the desire to provide for them is huge. The dogs and children learn to trust each other and that plants a seed that allows them to grow. There’s a special bond between children and animals and that opens the window to allow a therapist to get through to that child. It truly is magical.”

To learn more information about Gabriel’s Angels, and how to get involved, visit the organization’s website at GabrielsAngels.org or call 1-866-785-9010.

Category: Community, Nature