It’s hard to be a kid. Even harder to be a kid in crisis – a behavioral or emotional challenge so significant that you need extra-special care in a residential setting to get well and heal from trauma. 

When a pandemic means no one can come visit, and you can’t leave, that’s when you need more than a friend, more than a committed therapist, more than a dedicated nurse.

That’s when you need a dog.

Carmen’s special touch

Carmen, a rehabilitative facility dog from Paws4People, relaxes at home after a long day of love.

At St. Vincent’s Villa, the residential treatment facility for children aged 5 to 14 with significant emotional or mental health challenges, visits are curtailed. The staff continues medication management, therapies, and academics so children can stay on a path to wellness, healing and achievement. And Carmen, the rehabilitative facility dog from Paws4People, gets and gives extra love whenever she can.

“Today she spent time with several of our girls and has an appointment with two others later this afternoon,” said Administrator Ezra Buchdahl, who is Carmen’s trainer and “dad.” 

Trained to heal

Carmen came to St. Vincent’s Villa and Villa Maria School just over a year ago. Trained in North Carolina, she is, you might say, a breed apart – a level or two up from a support animal. Carmen knows exactly how to help children in a facility setting like St. Vincent’s Villa and Villa Maria School. She hangs out in Dad’s office when she isn’t giving affection, helping calm a child in a particularly difficult moment, or doing endless tricks.

The tricks are easy. She is trained to understand 100 words and commands. She can spell and read – yes, that’s right – eight words.

The children at St. Vincent’s Villa and Villa Maria School respond powerfully to Carmen, according to Buchdahl. He said he has seen the dog de-escalate kids’ reactions in highly troubled moments and behaviors. And she helps them work through their pain – the reason they’re having behavioral or emotional challenges to begin with. 

“One of our therapists will be talking a child who’s very resistant to talking about her trauma on a walk with Carmen,” Buchdahl said. “She does that every few days and it seems to really make a difference.”

A sponge with fur

Like anyone trained to show unconditional love full-time, Carmen can get tired. In a sense, she’s a trauma-informed care specialist. When she’s wearing her vest, she knows she’s working. She’s highly attentive, highly attuned, and always ready to respond to a need.

Buchdahl said Carmen also absorbs a lot of what the children she helps are feeling. He can tell when she needs a break. When she’s home, or in his office and relaxing, her vest is off – a signal to the 4-year-old lab that she can rest, snack on Froot Loops treats, and just be a dog.

As if Carmen could ever be “just a dog.”

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