The puppies sprawled under a tree at The Farm at Penny Lane barely opened their eyes until trainers Ann Tolliver and Heather Nash opened the gate to their pen.
They scooched onto their haunches, tails alert and wagging. One rolled onto his back, legs stretched, for a belly rub. The women, clients of the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, reached down to scratch their itches, getting puppy kisses in return.
Her therapist suggested she visit the farm, said Tolliver, 33, of Chapel Hill, who has epilepsy and has battled psychosis.
She loves working with the dogs, Tolliver said. She found structure at the farm and can do something to give back, she said, so while she already finished the 12-week training program, she still volunteers while working toward a paralegal certificate.
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Tolliver decided to share her experiences “because I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about mental illness,” she said.
“The more people that realize that they are actually exposed to somebody who has experienced (it), the less the stigma will be a part of it,” she said.
The UNC PAWS (Peer-Assisted Wellness Support) shelter-to-pet program, which started at the farm in 2014, is on track to graduate its 11th dog by mid-July. Another 25 puppies have gone through the more recently established Puppy Development Center.
The 38-acre farm is located near Briar Chapel and Fearrington Village in northern Chatham County. Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions, a managed behavioral health care company, provided seed money for staff to work with client-trainers recovering from depression, severe mental illness and addiction disorders.
The farm also has a community garden, greenhouse and heritage-breed chickens.
The clients work with rescue dogs, teaching basic commands, breaking bad behaviors and socializing with them before they are adopted out. Good dogs get cereal as a reward, but clients receive life and job skills, and support.
UNC PAWS program manager Bryan Ragan works closely with the Chatham County Animal Shelter to choose the right dogs. He tests their temperament, gently pulling tails, taking things out of their mouths and trying his best to act “like an unruly 2-year-old,” he said.
The dog that still wants to please him is a good fit for program, he said. Hope Crossing Animal Hospital in Pittsboro provides health care and vaccinations.
“What’s so great about it is we’re saving the dogs,” said Sunny Westerman, adoption coordinator for UNC PAWS and Puppy Development Center program manager.
Chatham’s shelter reported taking in 835 dogs last year and euthanizing roughly 45 percent. About 40 percent were transferred to partner agencies, such as UNC PAWS, or returned to their owners.
Leigh Anne Garrard, Chatham County animal services director, has attended puppy graduations and gotten to know the people involved, she said. The dogs leave the shelter-to-pet program house-broken and with “manners,” she said.
“That’s what really makes this worthwhile,” Garrard said. “Seeing those types of changes not only in the dogs, but that the dogs make in the people.”
Learning to serve
UNC PAWS debuted the Puppy Development Center in January as a pilot partnership between the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, operated out of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine’s psychiatry department, and the paws4people foundation based in Wilmington.
Thava Mahadevan, director of the farm’s recovery programs, discovered the paws4people foundation while researching new therapy models. She is also director of operations at the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health.
“Everything happened for the right reasons,” he said. “We found the right people at the right time, and we had the space. I’m still amazed how it all fell into place.”
The foundation sends golden and Labrador retriever puppies to the farm during their “imprinting phase” – 7 to 20 weeks of age.
The puppies learn confidence and problem-solving skills. They go on field trips with the clients and staff – to the Chapel Hill Police Department and other places – to get used to different experiences.
“It’s beneficial to expose the puppies to a lot of different people and a lot of different things that make noise,” Westerman said. “We go to the kids’ toy aisle at Walmart, and we roll scooters around the puppies and try to get them to climb on them to practice being on an unsteady surface. We go to Carolina Meadows, a retirement community, and they see and walk next to and underneath wheelchairs and walkers and meet older people.”
At 20 weeks, the puppies leave for one of three West Virginia prisons, where the inmates teach them hundreds of other commands required for service dogs.
The paws4people foundation provides trained assistance dogs to military service members, veterans and young people with physical, neurological, psychiatric or emotional disabilities. paws4people Chief Executive Officer Kyria Henry said they have more than 1,200 dogs now.
“There are 23 reported suicides a day for veterans,” Westerman said. “Service dogs can really change their lives through support and unconditional love.”
Fun and innovation
The paws4people foundation partnered with UNC-Wilmington in 2011 to offer the first comprehensive Assistance Dog academic certificate program at a state university, said Henry, who started the foundation in 1999. It meets Assistance Dogs International industry standards, she said, and is working toward being an accredited member.
The process of matching dogs with people is “extremely selective,” Henry said. There are 75 people applying for every dog.
Dogs and their potential clients meet in the prison – a neutral setting is better for identifying strong bonds, Henry said – before a final round of dog training customized to the client’s needs.
UNC PAWS officials have talked with Orange County and state corrections officials about starting a regional training program. They also want the public to get more involved and make the farm self-sufficient. UNC graduate students are studying the early results, Ragan said, to help with grants.
Nash, 39, said she struggled with depression and other issues but found unconditional love at the farm.
“It’s a really good place to be,” said the mixed-media collage artist and Central Carolina Community College art student.
“It gets me out of the house and gives me something to do,” she said. “I’m always busy anyway, but this actually adds to the volunteering and doing something that I like to do.
The farm is focusing on fun, positive ways to reach clients, Mahadevan said, and help them be part of the solution.
“Some of the hardest to serve people do not walk into your mental health clinics and get services,” he said. “You’ve got to have another way to engage them, and dogs are a very nice way to engage people.”
The Farm at Penny Lane is always looking for volunteers to work in community garden, help socialize the dogs and provide forever homes. Families looking to adopt must provide references and submit to a home visit.
More information is available online at farmatpennylane.org and nando.com/1fk. Learn about the adoption process by contacting Bryan Ragan at email@example.com or Sunny Westerman at firstname.lastname@example.org.