By Max Villegas
Heeling House, a Sterling nonprofit, is becoming increasingly popular among high school students as they provide service dogs to help students de-stress.
The nonprofit aims to improve the lives of special needs children through visits with therapy dogs, but its mission has evolved to help all students in the community. Established in 2014, Heeling House has grown to have roughly 30 therapy dog teams that serve students in Loudoun. All teams are registered through Pet Partners, an international organization promoting animal assisted therapy.
One of the services Heeling House offers is assisted animal therapy, when dogs come into the classroom and visit special needs students on a regular basis. Heeling House assists students at Harper Park Middle School in Leesburg, where the dogs come in every other week. The dogs help students reach their goals, either in academics or life skills.
That can include dogs putting on costumes, said Heeling House Office Manager Monica Chiu. She said that exercise helps teach special needs students about how to dress themselves and dress appropriately for the weather outside.
Ellen Hinch and her dog, Karma, are one team that travels to Harper Park for assisted animal therapy visits.
“[It] never seems to get old,” Hinch said, as she enjoys bringing Karma in to allow students to have fun, but also learn how to complete tasks. Karma gives the middle schoolers an opportunity to improve their communication skills, because students are excited to share stories about their own dogs.
Hinch said that the dogs are there to serve a purpose, so they are expected to always stay on task. Both the dogs and their handlers must pass the Therapy Dog Test every two years to work with local facilities.
Nancy Chesley, who works with a golden retriever named Zoey, emphasized that “the dog has to want to do the work,” which can determine the types of events a team will attend. For example, Chelsey and Zoey found success at local hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
Kathleen O’Reagan works with Zac, a Kuvasz, mainly in classrooms. O’Reagan agreed with Chesley regarding the dogs each having their specialties, as Zac is best paired with the elderly.
“[The] handler is the dog’s advocate,” Chesley said. And, she said, the dogs can’t perform at their best without their own time to de-stress.
The other type of service Heeling House offers are de-stress events, which are geared more towards high school students. During a de-stress event, Heeling House will come into a school, normally during lunch, and allow students to come visit the dogs for an opportunity to relieve stress.
De-stress events have become more popular, which Chiu believes is linked to the pandemic.
“People are starting to see the benefits of dogs,” said Chiu. With the anxiety experienced by high school students with testing and college applications, de-stress events provide time to relax. Chiu hopes to help out more schools in the future, but she encourages schools to book in advance to secure a session with the dogs.
Chiu recalled students “crying happy tears” when the dogs come in. The de-stress events are a relief for high schoolers and the impact is clearly visible. Heeling House wants to make an impact, even if the results aren’t as dramatic. Chiu emphasized the need to focus on mental health, and the dog teams are ready to be available to students for support.
“[It’s] something different in the routine,” Chesley said. She explains how visits to schools, hospitals and other facilities can lead to building relationships with students and patients. Frequent visits also allow for more student-dog activities that can have a deeper impact.
Chesley, Hinch and O’Reagan hope to visit high schools more frequently to continue building relationships and giving students a chance to unwind with a furry friend.
Max Villegas is a Freedom High School senior completing his senior capstone project at Loudoun Now.