Duke, an English Labrador, to become first official facility dog for state program
As Oregon increases its focus on mental health services statewide amid rising demand exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a canine and his owner are on a mission to provide families and workers with a new avenue for emotional support in Clackamas County and beyond.
In January, two child welfare offices in North Clackamas and Oregon City welcomed their first four-legged team member — Duke, a 2-year-old English Labrador who began training as a service dog six months after he was born.
Duke’s owner and trainer, Danielle Santilli, has worked for child welfare and self-sufficiency services in Clackamas County for 17 years and began raising puppies five years ago with Healing Hounds, an Oregon service specializing in the training and deployment of dogs to support mental health and medically assisted individuals across the state.
Santilli has spent the past two years training Duke to provide a comforting presence in high-stress scenarios as part of her independently funded pilot project to introduce Duke as Oregon Child Welfare’s first facility dog supporting children and families as well as the social workers who care for them.
“When I started training Duke, we brought him everywhere, whether it was to the hospital, it was to basketball games, it was just in the community at stores, wherever he could go — he has access everywhere,” Santilli said.
“His training is always ongoing, for the purposes of making sure that he can be calm in the presence of others and be able to help and heal in highly stressful situations,” she added.
Santilli says Duke has been trained to recognize signs that someone around him may be experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, self-harming, major psychiatric issues and those who have diabetes, experience seizures, or may need medical assistance for other reasons .
For example, Santilli said if Duke notices someone doing something such as repeatedly scratching, it will trigger him to be responsive which can include giving them a light “nudge.”
“What it does is that it helps stop that behavior, but it also helps them recognize, ‘Wow, I’m kind of feeling overwhelmed today. I’m feeling overwhelmed at this moment,'” Santilli said.
Before Duke officially begins working with families, which is Santilli’s goal, she has deployed him at the office to help provide the in-house team of social welfare workers with an ongoing source of support as they helped others through difficult situations.
“As a child-welfare and self-sufficiency professional, it’s immensely rewarding work in supporting families and children in need,” Santilli said, adding that she has learned through years in the field the importance of “being able to recognize how we take that on, when people are going through trauma of their own.”
Santilli said that with Duke’s help, she recently revamped a program she started years ago helping the Oregon Department of Human Services trauma-support workers “recognize the vicarious trauma that we go through” and how to care for themselves.
“I want workers to stay. When our workers stay, the ability to help our families that we have, we don’t lose it,” Santilli added. “Our goal is to keep children intact with their biological families as best we can in a safe, safe environment.”
For the next six months, Duke will practice his service skills among ODHS workers before the pilot project can be approved permanently.
Santilli says her larger vision is to have Duke inspire a statewide reimagining of how people care for themselves in daily life as well as in the workplace, showing people that support is a fundamental, ongoing need.
“We just want the public to know that this is an option, and that we want it to continue to be an option for our workers, our children and families, because there’s such a need for it,” Santilli said.
“Outside of the traditional therapy that we do, there’s all different avenues of support, emotional support,” she continued, turning her focus to Duke.
“I think he’s the first avenue to be able to plow the way for other service dogs and puppy raisers throughout the state to be able to help support not just the county…it takes a community to be able to support our workers to keep our families safe, and our children.”
To support Duke and his journey, visit his GoFundMe page here. For more information about Healing Hounds, click here. To find a child welfare office near you, click here.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.