‍ NJ kids getting help with mental health issues from therapy dogs
‍ Children open up and share feelings while petting a dog
‍ One organization uses dogs in every presentation

A New Jersey organization that educates and supports students with mental health issues is using therapy dogs in schools.

According to Tricia Baker, the co-founder of Attitudes in Reverse, interacting with dogs has been clinically shown to reduce stress and increase a sense of wellness.

attachment-DOG 1 (2)

She said more and more kids are struggling with anxiety, depression and other issues.

“What we started doing was incorporating the dogs into all of our mental wellness programs, especially the older students," she said. "Their program can be a tough program because we’re talking about signs of suicide.”

“What we found was a lot of students would come up, they’d start to pet the dogs and then they’d start to share how they were feeling or share their struggles.”

Helping students across New Jersey

Courtesy Attitudes in Reverse
Courtesy Attitudes in Reverse

Baker said her group travels around the state doing mental wellness presentations for students of all ages, but they also work with schools in Middletown, Hopewell, Ewing, South Hunterdon and Lyndhurst, helping staff members train their own dogs to become certified therapy dogs, which takes 11 months, but it’s worth it.

“When a student is petting the dog the student will share things that they typically wouldn’t share if the dog wasn’t in the room.”

Baker, who is a certified therapy dog trainer, has six dogs herself, and all of them participate in different wellness programs with students.

She said when a session begins with a class full of kids, “they sit, they listen, they’re engaged and at the very end is the very happy part where they all get to interact and pet the dog and ask questions about the dogs.”'

Courtesy Attitudes in Reverse
Courtesy Attitudes in Reverse

More kids, more dogs

For a class with 20 students, one therapy dog will be featured, but in larger settings such as an assembly, Baker said there may be four.

“It’s amazing to see the smiles and just how happy a dog can make a child.”

A sense of normalcy

She said what interacting with dogs brings to young people is “a sense of normalcy, they come to school, they see the dog, they smile and they’re able to go off to class feeling much happier, feeling much safer.”

She pointed out that more than 1 out of 5 young people struggle with some sort of mental health disorder but most of them don’t receive treatment.

Baker co-founded Attitudes in Reverse after her son Kenny, who struggled with mental health, ended his life.

“Our goal is to reduce stigma, so no one is ever afraid to reach out to get help for biological brain illness," she said.

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at david.matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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