At Casa Padre not all of the staff walk on two legs. Eight dogs make up the on-site Emotional Support Team. This program began with an idea from Jeissa Melendez. In addition to her work as a clinician at Southwest Key Programs, Jeissa also specializes in the human-animal bond and volunteers with her therapy dog, Nala. As she worked with youth throughout their reunification process, she saw an opportunity to combine her volunteer work with therapy dogs with her career as a clinician. With approval from Southwest Key leadership and Texas State Licensing, she brought her dog Nala, a Certified Therapy dog, to Casa Padre to begin providing support.
“This program is important to me as a mental health professional because it's my passion to bring comfort to our clients. The support that this initiative has received has been amazing and has helped our clinicians feel comfortable to use evidence-based professional skills that can bring stability to our clients.” –Jeissa Melendez
The eight-dog Emotional Support Team is comprised of pets of clinicians who participate in the voluntary program. Each dog that comes into the shelter has been treated and evaluated by a licensed veterinarian who has recommended them as an emotional support animal. They are supervised 100% of the time and accompanied by their skilled handlers. They participate in clinical sessions and take walks throughout the shelter to greet and accept belly rubs from youth and staff. And, like any employee, the dogs work in shifts to ensure there is a consistent schedule of Emotional Support Team members on duty.
Sometimes it can be difficult or uncomfortable for the minors in our care to open up and talk to staff. But, when a dog is present, their naturally earnest, soothing presence creates a more welcoming environment for youth to open up more with clinical staff. They can provide a topic for conversation when starting a dialogue, which can lead to conversations about not only the dog, but their home country and past life. In addition to helping facilitate conversations with staff, the dogs also provide youth with topics of conversation during calls with their families. The dogs are frequently requested to make appearances during video chats to be introduced.
Many families love their pets and consider them to be members of the family. And while youth in our shelter’s stay is only temporary, it’s important to us that they have a comfortable experience in a nurturing environment. We’ve developed a variety of programs, activities and processes to achieve this. The Emotional Support Team helps create a more welcoming, comfortable and homelike environment that gives a greater sense of normalcy to all of the youth at Casa Padre. They’re also able to provide the opportunity for physical contact and affection, as youth can hug, kiss and snuggle the dogs.
The Emotional Support Team has become a beloved addition to the Casa Padre familia and has provided countless hours of joy to youth and staff alike.
Meet the team
Nala Zoé s a 5-year-old Welsh Pembroke Corgi and loves to work. She is a Certified Therapy Dog. She has previously worked in psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, schools, children’s hospitals, methadone programs, and therapeutic group homes. During her off hours she loves to relax, sleep and be lazy, but when it’s time to work she is the first one to see what needs to be done. When she assesses that someone is in distress, she knows that’s her cue to go to work and ask to be petted.
Olaf Antonio is a 5 year old German Border Collie and Shepherd mix. He was rescued when he was just 2 months old after being thrown into a river and left for dead. His handler opened his house and his heart and very early Olaf gave signs of being a being full of love. Olaf loves to give and receive hugs.
Winky is always happy. Even though Winky is 10 years old, he still has the soul of a puppy. He likes playing dress-up and has a closet full of outfits. He still maintains his sense of curiosity and enjoys walking around and smelling everything. He is very loving and always wants to meet new friends, especially those who rub his head. Tell him “vamos a dar una vueltita” and he will be your best friend forever!
Kiara is a 1-year-old German Shepherd. She is always ready for action. Kiara loves to play, run a lot and is fast to learn how to open doors. Kiara loves to play with the kids, especially outside or those with a lot of energy like her. She has graduated in three obedience courses (puppy, intermediate and advanced) and she is in the process to be certified as a Therapy Dog. Meanwhile, she is working with Casa Padre children as needed.