Anyone who has pets can tell you about the comfort they provide when times are tough, and as the daughter of a veterinarian, Grace Coleman has seen the healing power of an animal’s touch more times than she can count. Yet it wasn’t until a little boy met her rescue dog, Penny, that she realized how useful the human-animal bond could be in her work at Crisis Center North (CCN).
“The Paws for Empowerment program began in 2010, when I started bringing Penny to work because our team found her especially relaxing to have on-site,” explained the domestic violence shelter’s executive director. “There was a little boy outside the center who didn’t want to go into his therapy session and he saw Penny and ran to her. On the spur of the moment, I asked him if my dog could go to the counseling session with him, and he took her in. The therapist said they covered more ground in that one session than they had in six months—he told the dog everything.”
CCN supports and empowers domestic violence victims through free and confidential services including a crisis hotline, individual counseling and therapy, legal and medical advocacy, a rapid rehousing program, school-based prevention education programs and more.
Realizing the advantages of using rescue dogs in therapy, Coleman began researching the process and started the Paws for Empowerment program in her father’s honor. The program has since expanded to include three dogs—Penny, Ari and Rune—and a cat, Thea, and the animals now work in both therapeutic and court settings to address trauma in victims.
According to Coleman, one of the more surprising things at the beginning of the program was that the animals seemed to instinctively know what to do.
“A good dog is a dog with a job,” Coleman said her father often stated. “While we knew we could teach obedience and get the dogs certified as therapy dogs, we also decided to capitalize on the centuries of knowledge that have been bred into dogs—over the course of time, these dogs intuitively know what to do,” she said.
“When you create an environment where a dog can share itself with a partner, they develop their own job descriptions,” she added of this intuitive training method. “Each of our animals has unique skills that are not things we trained them in. We can teach them how to think through things and solve problems, but once they are in these situations, the miracles just happen.”
Providing comfort comes naturally to dogs, and Penny’s empathetic nature led her to become the first shelter dog to serve as a canine court advocate in Pennsylvania. Now Ari and Rune go to magisterial court with domestic violence victims and provide them with comfort as they share their stories in what are often small, crowded courts where the victims and perpetrators are in close quarters.
“Sometimes the dogs just sit with the victims to provide comfort while they are telling their stories, and sometimes victims can’t even look at anyone in the court, so they look at the dogs,” said Coleman. “Even though they have to tell the worst stories of their lives in a public forum, this unconditional love and support help make the experience less traumatizing.”
Coleman added that the dogs have also protected victims from their assailants. “I’ve seen a perpetrator charge a victim and get body blocked by the dog,” she said. “They help to create distance as well as a multitude of other things, depending on the need.”
Not only does it help victims to have this love and support, but the program helps shelter dogs as well. “So many shelter dogs need a good home, and after we started this program, more victims’ agencies began using canines,” said Coleman. “Euthanizing these dogs would put so much talent to waste–connecting these animals to the people who need them the most gives both entities comfort.
“The most fun part of this experience is watching how proud the dogs are of themselves,” she added. “They are so excited to show up to work. The enthusiasm and pride they take in their work is amazing.”
Coleman funded the original program with her own household budget and has since been able to receive grant funding, which has allowed Paws for Empowerment to expand beyond its original role.
“We are now training veterinarians about the intersectionality between animal abuse and human violence,” she said. “Vets are often integrated into the family structure and are trusted advisors, so they are in a unique position to interrupt the cycle of violence by connecting victims to us.”
She added that one of the biggest reasons that victims won’t leave a domestic violence situation is because they have a pet, which makes it hard to find a place to go, and they don’t want to leave the pet behind.
“We’re working to remove that barrier and are looking to also expand this program to include larger animals,” she said of finding places where these pets can go when victims need to leave a home. “We’re super excited to work with vets as part of a community response to domestic violence, creating positive solutions to make our communities more peaceful.”
CCN’s Paws for Empowerment program is also making the case for battered pets by providing veterinary stipends for their care, as they are often the first victims of domestic violence.
“As a community, we can work together to provide solutions for domestic violence, but that often requires thinking outside of the box,” Coleman added. “Paws for Empowerment is just one of those creative solutions.”
To learn more about CCN, visit www.crisiscenternorth.com.