Dogs Help Kids Heal
Something magical had just happened, and Pam Gaber adjusted the rearview mirror to talk to the one behind it all.
“Gabriel,” she said to the gray, panting pooch in the backseat, “What did you do?”
For more than a year, Gaber had been working diligently to gain the trust of children who should have been far too young to know that adults can lie.
Yet her 1-year-old Weimaraner had needed only minutes to break through the walls that abuse and neglect had erected. The smiles and laughter still rang in Gaber’s ears when she had the thought:
“I could do something, or I could do nothing.”
She decided to do something, and over the last 12-plus years, Gabriel’s Angels has visited more than 13,000 abused, neglected and at-risk kids who have learned a little something about love and caring from dogs just as magical as the gray pooch that started it all.
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Tiny hands reached out as the golden retriever stepped into the room, and over the next 10 minutes, Tucker was pushed, pulled, tugged and towed by the excited children in pre-kindergarten at Crisis Nursery in central Phoenix.
Tucker’s tail did not stop wagging until Leslie Hosford, his owner and therapy teammate, gently pushed his rump into a sit. And still, tiny hands were all over him, including one that gave his tail a yank.
Tucker gave no indication that he even noticed.
For more than 3 years, Tucker and Hosford have been here every Wednesday, without fail, one of Gabriel’s Angels’ 160 person-animal teams reaching out to abused, neglected and at-risk children. The program is one of many social- service organizations that have been supported by The Arizona Republic and 12 News’ Season for Sharing campaign in past years.
Gabriel’s Angels’ purpose is to teach children such core values as confidence, tolerance and respect.
But at this moment, all the kids care about is a big fluffy dog, and they just want to hold on.
These are children who have been neglected, or have shared beds crowded with siblings, or who have had no bed at all, waking each day in a car.
All of that goes away when Tucker comes in. The older kids — the 4- and 5-year-olds fearless in the face of a large swishing tail — descend upon Tucker with hands poised to pet. The younger children — 18 months to 3 years — may be a bit more hesitant, approaching a side of the dog, where there are no teeth.
Sooner or later, they all fall under Tucker’s spell.
On a recent visit, it happened the second Hosford asked, “Who wants to hug Tucker?” A chorus of “me, me, me” filled the room, and soon only the golden’s muzzle was visible, the rest of him lost under an avalanche of small bodies.
It was a familiar sight for Cindy English, the education manager for Crisis Nursery. Even children who have withdrawn behind walls of their own making — perhaps necessary to survive — will start to emerge in the safety of a friendly, lovable animal.
“These kids have been hurt or lied to by adults,” English said. “But around an animal, they show love and caring. For some it might be the very first meaningful connection they make.”
While Tucker attracts plenty of noisy attention from preschoolers, the real breakthroughs happen quietly.
Jose, a mentally challenged toddler, gripped a brush and, with the help of a teacher, moved smoothly along the dog’s soft fur. An appreciative Tucker suddenly swiveled his head and licked Jose’s cheek, and the boy’s broad smile spread quickly among kids and educators alike.
When that moment passed — its true magic understood by only a few in the room — teacher Isabel Cubero said, “Oh, I want to cry right now.”
For the past few weeks, Jose had been reluctant to come near Tucker. Cubero was shocked, and touched, to see what happened when the golden gave Jose that appreciative lick.
“It was so beautiful to see,” Cubero said.
The fleeting seconds of that interaction are among the many reasons Hosford makes the lengthy drive from north Scottsdale each week with her canine companion.
“I am incredibly lucky to do this,” she said. “And Tucker loves it. When we get home, he goes to his crate and sleeps until I wake him for dinner.”
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Gabriel’s Angels’ roots go back to Jan. 1, 1999, and a gray blob in the corner.
Pam Gaber and her husband, Mike, decided it might be time for a puppy, though “might” never played into it.
“When you go looking for a puppy, you come home with a puppy,” Gaber said. “It always happens that way.”
Their first and only stop was at a Gilbert breeder to look at a litter of Weimaraners. As several pups nipped at her ankles, Gaber was drawn to the one huddled in the corner. Within minutes he had a home and a name — Gabriel.
Fast forward a year. Gaber, who had been volunteering at Crisis Nursery every Friday for 18 months, often shared tales of her mischievous pooch Gabriel, and the kids hung on every word. Soon, she was bringing photos of her pet.
“It really resonated with them,” Gaber said. “They were bonding with an animal they’d never met.”
As the annual holiday party approached, Gaber had an idea — a waggish, playful, frisky idea. What if she dressed Gabriel as a reindeer and brought him along?
Doing just that, she was astonished by the results. The kids brushed, petted and hugged Gabriel. One child rubbed Gabriel’s velvety ear against his cheek. There were smiles. There were laughs.
Gaber also was astounded by what she did not see. Tantrums. Tears. Angry outbursts.
Once she decided to do something, Gaber scoured the Internet looking for groups that used dogs to reach out to troubled kids. She found therapy dogs who visited hospitals and homeless shelters and care homes, but nothing dedicated to at-risk youths.
She went to work creating her own non-profit, starring (and named after) Gabriel, begun in May 2000. Canines had to be certified as therapy dogs, costs incurred by the owner. Once registered, each dog also had to pass Gaber’s muster, as did each human companion.
When a neighbor heard about it, Gabriel’s Angels had its second therapy dog — Sugarbear, a golden retriever. A few months later, they were joined by Auska, a shaggy bouvier des Flandres. But Angels took flight when it was featured by a local TV news station.
By 2002, Gabriel’s Angels had 25 teams in the field; a year later, that number had doubled.
Today it has more therapy teams than it can handle, as well as a waiting list of agencies requesting weekly visits. The agency’s budget, however, has put a leash on growth.
The group’s volunteer coordinators are nearly overwhelmed as they schedule and monitor the 160 teams. With a larger budget, Gaber said, she could hire more staff members and expand the services.
Gabriel’s Angels took in $540,755 in grants and donations in 2010, according to its federal tax filing, and spent $688,320, for a loss of $135,040.
While Gaber remains in charge of the agency, she retired from the field not long after Gabriel passed away in May 2010.
Four months earlier, after a visit that exhausted the big gray dog (who was in the midst of cancer treatments), Gaber once again tilted the rearview mirror so she could talk to her best friend in the backseat.
“Gabriel,” she said. “I am so sorry. I should have known better. I won’t put you through that again.”
The dog’s legacy lives on, and Gaber said Angels will outlast her as well.
“The gift goes beyond Gabriel and I,” she said.
~ Courtesy of The Arizona Republic