Bronx Summer Camp Pairs Kids With Therapy Dogs, Teaches Social Skills

BRONX, N.Y. (PIX11) — A Bronx summer camp is helping kids learn emotional intelligence thanks to some special therapists — therapy dogs.

“If you are nervous about the day, how it’s been. If it is like a test, and it’s important you can get very anxious,” said 10-year-old Jeremiah Butler, who says there are days that are tougher to handle.

He said those uneasy feelings seem to go away when he’s at the WHEDco Summer Arts Day Camp, especially on days when his group gets to take part in the Fair Shake for Youth program. It pairs kids with pets and therapy dogs.

“The dogs are important because it helps calm us down and we also pet the dogs,” Butler said.

WHEDco is a settlement house that offers support and social services to the families they serve, free of charge. The pet therapy program has been around for 13 years. Twice a week during the summer months, the children learn about self-esteem, kindness, how to talk about their emotions and the best ways to manage stress.

“The dogs are a great tool that we have to help children relate more to their feelings, to their emotions, and have greater empathy,” said Instructor Yuruani Olguin. “The hands-on exercises are great.”

For some of these children, it’s their first experience with a dog, and by the end of the program, they’re able to form special bonds with the pets. They also get to take a field trip to a local shelter and learn about breed discrimination, and the similarities between dogs and humans.

“We have to give them space. If they are barking, we can calm them down. People also need a little bit of space and people also have to calm down,” said summer camper Valerie Sanchez.

The program director hopes the impact lasts a lifetime.

“We want to create a safe space for them and being able to work with the therapy dogs really allows for that judgment-free space for them. We want them to develop confidence, be empowered, be comfortable with themselves, have some social awareness,” said Jamie Yellen, Program Director for WHEDco Summer Arts Day Camp.

“I feel happy, loved and that’s basically it,” Sanchez said.

The pet therapy program lasts through the end of summer camp. Once it wraps, the kids get trading cards to remember the pets and the unique experience.