Louie, a 5-month-old Goldendoodle, has joined the staff of the Community and Violence Intervention Center.

He is the agency's first therapy dog-and his job is to help children work through some difficult moments in their young lives.

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Although he's only been on the job a few months, Louie has already made a valuable contribution.

"He is making a huge impact for the kids I'm seeing," said Mandy, whose last name withheld for safety reasons. Mandy is a youth therapist who works primarily with children ages 17 and younger. "I can see a difference in my clients."

Louie is present in the room when Mandy is conducting therapy sessions with children who've been affected by domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, and neglect.

"Louie is one big puppy," Mandy said. "He looks like a teddy bear."

"He's naturally drawn to the child. He'll sit near or underneath the client's seat," she said. "He's able to sense what the child needs at that time."

Louie's effect on children "is so incredible," Mandy said. "Even kids who don't interact with him,

you can see their body posture is so much more relaxed. They are able to bring up difficult things and talk about difficult things."

Research studies show that interaction with therapy animals lowers blood pressure and heart rate and stimulates other physiological changes that contribute to openness in interpersonal communication, Mandy said.

She recalled a very young child diagnosed with autism and post traumatic stress disorder. As the child lay on the floor with one arm across her eyes, she spoke of being "not lovable, worthless," Mandy said. "Her guardian was not able to take care of her."

"Louie moved in and lay next to her. Later she said, 'I feel love; Louie is protecting me. I feel cared for.' "

Until this point, the child "had not been able to process the feeling of someone caring for her," Mandy said. "It was such a cool moment. I don't know if it would have happened if Louie hadn't been there."

Another child, an adolescent, had concerns about a sibling who was being sexually abused. While petting Louie, she started to disclose those concerns, Mandy said.

Encouraging kids to talk about abuse they've seen or endured is no small feat, said Therese Hugg, director of victim services at CVIC.

"It's been just immeasurable to see the impact that Louie has had on kids, and how his presence kind of eases them and comforts them, and makes them feel safe enough to open up even more, so that's been really valuable to have him on our team," Hugg said.

Laying the groundwork

For purposes of animal-assisted therapy, Mandy and her colleagues wanted a large-breed dog so adults and children would not likely pick it up, she said.

They ruled out breeds reputed to have hip problems because children may lean against the dog and cause pain, which could prompt the dog to nip.

"I knew I wanted a poodle mix in there, because poodles are hypoallergenic," Mandy said. "And, as fluffy as Louie is, he doesn't shed and he doesn't set off allergies."

There were more serious issues to consider, too.

"We had to develop policies" which were reviewed by an attorney, she said, and liability issues had to be resolved.

"Louie is actually an employee of the CVIC," Mandy said, "and is covered under our employer insurance."

In his day job, "Louie is kept pretty busy," she said. "He's an underpaid, full-time employee."

Mandy found Louie through a breeder and met Louie's' parents before he was born, she said. "I wanted to know their temperament and how they acted with children."

Mandy got Louie on Dec. 15 and started bringing him to CVIC three days later.

"He started working about two weeks after I brought him to work," she said. "I started introducing him to kids (when he was) 10 weeks old."

Louie and Mandy are enrolled in weekly training classes at the Grand Forks Dog Training Club. Mandy continues the lessons at home.

When Louie is a year old, he can be registered as a therapy dog with the organization, Therapy Dogs International, provided he has passed the tests for obedience and temperament.

Still in training

Hugg said the CVIC staff consulted other agencies that use therapy dogs before making their decision about offering animal-assisted therapy..

"We knew the therapy dog has to train with one handler only, so we wanted to make sure we had an experienced therapist who also wanted to take on a therapy animal, with all the training that's involved, and have him residing in their home-that's a lot of added responsibility, too."

"(Louie) is still young and still in training. He's probably going to learn a lot," Hugg said.

"As he grows older, he's not, hopefully, an intense dog that would be in someone's face. I think (therapy dogs) kind of recognize when to step back and they learn to read people that way."

Louie's presence may also help speed up the therapeutic process for children.

"We have a waiting list for our services," Mandy said. "If more kids can get treatment more quickly, that would allow others to move through the waiting list more quickly.

"We've gotten so much positive feedback (concerning dog therapy), I could see that happening down the road."