Dog helps keep shelter residents on even keel


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Ann arrived at the Pleasant Valley Shelter several days ago. She had the right disposition to hang out every day with a group of men who are in need of a home, just as she was.

An 8-year-old Labrador mix, she has become the North Side shelter's therapy dog-in-residence as part of a new six-month residency program for the four men who will care for her. The maximum stay at the shelter is two months, but the Allegheny County Department of Human Services granted permission and support for the shelter to convert two storage areas into longer-term housing.

The plan is to offer four of the 25 residents more time and support to find jobs and permanent housing -- and the opportunity for them to be nurturers, too.

"We worked with the humane society to explain what we had in mind, and they suggested Ann," said Jay Poliziani, the shelter director. "We wanted to create an environment that feels a little more like home."

The concept aligns with the "Who rescued who?" sentiment that many people feel about adopted pets.

When Mr. Poliziani told two young men they were chosen for the extended stay and that it would oblige them "to help out more than the other guys in the shelter, they both said, 'Not a problem,' " he said. "Then I explained that the extra work would be to take care of the dog we were getting, and both men morphed into 10-year old boys in front of my eyes."

One of them, Johnstown native Louis Camell, has lived at the shelter for a month.

"I had been living on the streets when it was so cold," he said. A crisis center bought him a train ticket to Pittsburgh because there was a shortage of shelter space in the Altoona area, where he previously lived, he said.

He has secured a boxing and packaging job at Tru Food Manufacturing in Blawnox through Labor Ready, a national job-placement agency that has a location on the North Side, and said he is happy to add the duty of care for the sweet, 80-pound Ann.

Mr. Poliziani said the staff picked the four caretakers they thought had the best potential for a six-month turnaround to get work and take responsibility for the dog seriously. Ann's care includes three strict rules: no table scraps, no treats and no throwing of balls in the lounge. Mr. Poliziani said some residents may be intimidated by a dog running and possibly growling, even if playfully.

Ann had been delivered to the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society by a family whose new baby Ann welcomed with growls. But on the second evening in her new home, with eight shelter residents gathered in the TV lounge, Ann popped out of her crate and made the rounds, eventually settling at the feet of Woody Gibbs.

Mr. Gibbs lived in the shelter three times before attaining his own security, a home in Aspinwall and a job as the shelter's day monitor.

"I wish we had had a dog when I was living here," he said, ruffling Ann's back as she stretched.

"Just having her around might make someone think, 'It would be nice to live in a place where I could have a dog of my own.' "

"The bigger picture," Mr. Poliziani said, "is to guide the men toward counseling. This is a strategy we were looking at," along with writing workshops, martial arts and gym memberships.

Several times last year, a humane society therapy dog visited the shelter with good results, he said.

"The atmosphere has been a lot calmer with Ann here," said Mike Moore, a residential assistant. "In shelters, you deal with guys who have mental health issues" and histories of drug and alcohol abuse. "The dog addresses the loneliness factor and offers unconditional love."

The shelter, which is affiliated with Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania, provides behavioral health counseling and has gotten grants for that purpose since 1997 from the Staunton Farms Foundation.

The foundation does not pay for animals or animal therapy, but Joni Schwager, executive director of the foundation, said the dog adoption sounded like a good idea considering the evidence that therapy animals help vulnerable people strengthen their capacity for bonding and empathy.

Clay Vanterpool, one of the residents assigned to Ann's care, said the shelter's new pet "bridges the gap between being here and what you've lost -- a home, and playing with a dog."


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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