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Local Canine ‘Sidekicks’ Make A Difference In Children’s Psychiatric Health



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Editor's Note: This feature originally ran in For Better Health-Autumn 2023, printed as part of the October 13, 2023 Newtown Bee print edition and posted online the following week. The first name of one of the key interview subjects was misspelled in the online PDF, however. We are reprinting the story with the name corrected, and extend our apologies for the error.

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Operating outside of their duties as beloved pets, dogs with jobs are known to sniff out dangerous materials, assist with rescue, as well as guide and support those with alternate abilities and other physical or sight-related challenges.

The bright and well-trained canines from Newtown-based Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs have a lesser-known specialization and are making huge differences in the lives of their handlers — children and teens with psychiatric disorders.

Living with a condition such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, or bipolar comes with unique challenges specific to the disability and the person.

Representative of Exceptional Sidekick Tara Conway described the Newtown organization as “a response to the psychiatric needs of the community in Sandy Hook, Connecticut following the tragedy” — referring to the events of 12/14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

According to Conway, the organization was created in 2016 by Founder Abby Hill when it was becoming apparent Newtown families and children were not able to move on from the events of 12/14 on their own.

Conway explained Hill was a dog trainer who provided comfort dogs for the community immediately following the tragedy, and eventually began training service dogs to perform tasks to mitigate psychiatric disabilities.

Conway gave an example, explaining some Exceptional Sidekick clients struggle with regular activities attending school or going to the store, so their dog accompanies them and helps them with the associated anxiety.

For instance, if a student was to shake their leg as a response to feeling uncomfortable in class, their dog might press their nose and chin on their lap as “almost a furry weighted blanket,” according to Conway. She explained the moment would also serve as an interruption “so the student can identify this moment and use other coping skills” next time.

The dog can also “create a buffer” between the handler and other individuals in a store, if closeness was a trigger.

Conway said these dogs are being trained for whatever a client’s disability may look like, interrupting behaviors such as crying and self-harm. She added the dogs — mostly “healthy,” “happy-go-lucky” Labrador retrievers — can provide support on “physical levels” and emotional support as well.

Expanding Hospital Placements

While some of these working dogs are finding homes with specific handlers, some Exceptional Sidekicks are clocking-in at hospitals every day to help children, as well as many staff members who come in contact with these friendly, furry supporters.

Charlotte Beale of Yale-New Haven Health was seeking a second dog for its psychiatric inpatient unit for young children, and discovered Exceptional Sidekick on her search.

“In the last five or six years, it’s become a trend within the child life field to incorporate facility dogs into your program and be able to offer more services,” said Beale.

Beale described that her team was looking for a dog to “help [them] do that work” at the hospital with “directed goals” in mind — helping children cope with being in the hospital and educating them on their treatment.

“We were thrilled to find such a local group to support the expansion of our program,” said Beale.

Beale works in the outpatient surgery center, and Yale’s second Exceptional Sidekick dog, Poppy, works with her as part of the team.

According to Beale, Poppy helps to emotionally prepare kids for procedures. She said some kids are coming to the hospital for the first time, or come with “emotional weight” from past experiences.

Beale said most kids find Poppy “approachable and goofy,” and explained the dog can tolerate the rough-play the youngest patients tend to pursue.

Beale explained there are ways to use the facility dog, even when they are not present working with the child. For instance, children could write letters to the dog and “build that relationship in an ongoing way.”

“We do view our facility dogs as team members,” said Yale New Haven Health Child Life Program Director Toni Crowell-Petrungaro. “They all have their own hospital ID. They are treated as employees because they’re that essential, they’re not extra, they’re part of it.”

“Having the dog there is a really great transition to realize [the hospital] doesn’t have to be a scary space,” said Beale. “This can be a place where you ask questions, this can be a place where you learn, and that you have a voice in the process.”

The children at the center are not the only individuals benefiting from having a dog on staff. Beale said parents sitting in the waiting rooms waiting for their children in surgery, and in the “post-Covid era,” there are staff looking for relief during the day.

Conway said Exceptional Sidekick is looking to place more facility dogs at major children’s hospitals and schools in New England, and to visit exceptionalsidekick.org to learn more.

“We’re always available to connect with people who just have questions or are interested in learning more about working dogs,” added Conway.

Those interested in a service dog for a child or teen with psychiatric disabilities can review their options on the website and submit an application.


Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at noelle@thebee.com.

Exceptional Sidekick Poppy, pictured, goes to work every day ensuring her young patients are comforted and put at ease during their stay at the hospital.
Yale New Haven Health facility dog Poppy is pictured in action and on-lap at her job at Yale New Haven Health.
This infographic outlines some of the important distinctions between service dogs, emotional support dogs, therapy dogs, and facility dogs.
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