This #MentalHealthMatters blog post was written by Colleen Wetherwax, LISW. She is the School Program Coordinator at Ravenwood Health.

When the “world stopped” in 2020, and when we were all looking for ways to connect, we wrote a blog about the joys and mental health benefits of having a pet. Over the last year, we have learned to adapt and find new ways to operate, and luckily, we are moving in a much better direction. However, some things don’t change – like the immense benefits of a furry, scaly, feathery, and/or human friend! While the pandemic made it difficult to keep connections at times and rates of feeling loneliness increased, we have seen that people found and continue to find solace in their pets. We love our pets and oftentimes animals seem to have an innate way to know just the right way to show us unconditional love and connection. This is true not only in our homes, but in therapeutic environments as well.

It has been almost two years since Ravenwood Health started its journey with Denali, a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, affectionately known as Nali. Nali was adopted into the agency to help support clients throughout their treatment. With the help of the Family First Council, we brought her home around 7 weeks and started her training almost immediately. She quickly found connection and comfort with the children and staff, and her playful yet soulful demeanor captured the hearts of everyone. While she’s not technically considered a ‘therapy dog” yet, she was able to start her calling as a support to those who needed her. Throughout her first years of training and meeting new people, she learned how to be a calming presence for those around her.  Oftentimes a child who does not know how to express what they needed or what they were feeling can walk into the office with Denali and within minutes of petting and sitting with her they feel more calm and able to share.  Denali helps teach children not only unconditional acceptance, but also how to give space and understand how behaviors and actions affect the space they are in. Denali’s calm and innocent existence within a space has allowed for a feeling of safety and compassion that continues to provide success for clients.

With her playful puppy side, Denali is still working on fully passing her certifications to become a therapy dog. She loves to roll over and let people pet her belly when really, the command she needs to follow is “sit”, but in time, she is learning that there is a time for sitting and time for belly rubs. As she grows in the Ravenwood community, we look forward to continuing to see the benefits of the integration of animals and therapy for those who want it. Before we know it, she will be an official member of the team as a “Therapy Dog”.

Colleen is currently reading The Choice: Embrace the Possible by Dr. Edith Eva Eger.