A canine caregiver

Union City therapist works with a facility dog

Hardisty, a three-year-old Labrador Retriever, works in several therapeutic settings with therapist Allison Silver.
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Hardisty, a three-year-old Labrador Retriever, works in several therapeutic settings with therapist Allison Silver.

Union City has a new four-legged friend who’s making a difference in children’s lives.

Hardisty, a three-year old Labrador Retriever, can respond to more than 40 commands. He knows how to turn light switches on and off, open and close doors, and retrieve things that people drop. He is a proud product of nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), which has been training and breeding dogs for people with disabilities since 1975.

The nonprofit provides dogs, training, and services to facilitators and people with disabilities free of charge, and is funded entirely through donations, foundations, and grants.

The four main training categories for assistance dogs at CCI are service dogs, hearing dogs, skilled companion dogs, and facility dogs.

After two years of training, CCI determined that Hardisty should be a facility dog. Facility dogs partner with a facilitator working in a health care, visitation, or education setting. Hardisty was partnered with Allison Silver, a certified creative arts therapist specializing in family trauma. The two trained intensively for weeks at CCI’s Northeast Regional Center in Medford, N.Y.  before settling down in Union City.

Silver had raised a puppy for CCI some years ago, which prompted her to seek a facility dog. After taking on the full-time, two-week training program, she found her match in Hardisty.

A unique approach

With Silver, Hardisty works in a therapeutic setting, offering encouragement and support to victims of family trauma, mostly children ages 6-15, but also non-offending adults. Silver runs a number of programs at Union City’s YMCA with Hardisty by her side, specializing in creative arts therapy.

According to Silver, this form of therapy is crucial for people who do not do well with more confrontational forms of therapy. Children can interact with Hardisty in a safe way, helping them to work through their traumas.

Silver said that perfectionism is one way children respond to abuse. Their behavior becomes overly compliant and overly focused on other persons’ needs as a means of avoiding confrontation. Other children, as a defense mechanism, form aggressive behaviors that emulate those of their abusers.

“Hardisty serves as their baseline,” Silver said. “Repairing and rebuilding is so much easier with a dog by my side, giving kids unconditional love.”

One of Hardisty’s unique skills is that he can determine when children who have Autism Spectrum Disorder need emotional support. When he senses anger or anxiety, he’ll go over to a client and lay across them to give them sensory resistance and pressure, which has a calming effect.

“Hardisty does it on his own with clients, and if they don’t realize what’s happening I can call attention to it,” Silver said. “He does it innately. It’s one of the newest commands that they just started at CCI.”

“He makes them feel loved and wanted in a world that doesn’t necessarily make them feel that way.” — Allison Silver

Hardisy’s on the move

Hardisty works with Silver in other clinical settings as well. The RWJ Barnabas Health facility in Long Branch works with adults at a traumatic brain injury unit.

“We work in a much different capacity with them,” Silver said. “Hardisty provides them with a way to feel loved, and he helps to normalize a situation in which they don’t feel normal. They really love to see him, and he’s always so excited to see them. He makes them feel loved and wanted in a world that doesn’t necessarily make them feel that way, and he fills that void.”

Hardisty also meets with client families outside therapeutic settings to help them with daily routines like grocery shopping.

“I have families that have difficulty taking their children on daily errands, so I will meet them at a store, and work on grounding and focusing, emotion regulation, problem solving skills, and effective communication. So if a child can recognize bodily cues more effectively they can communicate to their parents what they’re feeling and what needs are not being met prior to dysregulating.”

Hardisty supports children in public to help them attain social skills and become more comfortable in social settings.

Facility dogs have to adapt with the times.

“As the world has changed, the disabilities individuals are faced with have also changed,” CCI Program Manager Jessica Reiss said. “At one point, cerebral palsy was on the rise, and we tailored our training for those needs. Now, Autism Spectrum Disorder is on the rise, and we’ve been tailoring our program to better fit that need. The use of facility dogs is on the rise, as they’re something like a dog with a masters degree in a wide variety of therapeutic modalities to reach groups of clients.”

For updates on this and more stories check hudsonreporter.com, or follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at mikem@hudsonreporter.com.