Project Harmony facility dog helps children through trauma

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Kamrin Baker
EDITOR IN CHIEF 

Woody the English golden retriever has had plenty of training to lead him to this prestigious role at Project Harmony. Photo courtesy of Angela Roeber.

Woody the English golden retriever is likely the fluffiest essential worker in Omaha.

During times of crisis—like the current global pandemic—Woody works as a calming presence to help children at Project Harmony (PH) as they heal from trauma and abuse. His primary handler, Angela Roeber, the director of communications at PH, has been working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Woody plays sidekick to a secondary handler from the Omaha Police Department, reporting for duty as an essential member of the team.

Roeber said the journey to getting a facility dog at PH was three years in the making, comprised of diligent research, conversations with other child advocacy centers and training. Woody came from Patriot Paws in Rockwell, Texas, whose mission is to provide service dogs to retired vets and have just ventured into child advocacy.

Woody is different from an emotional support animal or comfort dog, as his duties require him to have extensive training.

“Woody’s training in general was about a 15-20 month process,” Roeber said. “He had puppy raisers and some of the women’s correctional facility in Texas provided some additional training. He knows about 55 different cues and is trained not to respond to anything negative. If a child were to pull his ears or step on him, he doesn’t respond. We know he won’t respond.”

Woody is a friendly face in a waiting room, sure, but he also accompanies children in many different scary scenarios, working alongside therapists, forensic interviewers and family advocates. He has been with the organization since September of 2019 and is now being expanded into medial triage and court visits.

“Woody is another tool in our toolbox to help children feel more comfortable, safe and calm at Project Harmony,” Roeber said. “There’s something about having a dog that calms a person, and that’s exactly what he does. He sits there and helps kids get through the tough stuff and begin the healing process.”

Photo courtesy of Angela Roeber.

Right now is an especially important time for puppy love. Roeber said that since schools are not in session, and it’s not spring or summer break, children in worrisome situations are without friends, teachers and childcare providers. In addition, April is also Child Abuse Awareness Month, and PH is providing extra programming and outreach during this time.

“We might walk into some situations where stress and anxiety are extra high,” Roeber said. “During this time of social distancing, we’re asking that everyone reach out and make contact with the children in their lives and make sure they’re O.K. We’re still open and providing services, and if families need extra support, we’re here for them.”

Although things are tough for many folks during this time of elevated caution and fear, Woody brings the paw-sitive vibes. No really, he has a special “Paws-itive Vibes” wall at the PH headquarters where children can write him love notes and draw him special pictures.

“Even in Woody’s first week here, he was having an impact,” Roeber said. “His first week on the job, there was a young girl who was with her grandparents and had some attachment issues and was really scared. When they wanted her to go into a forensic interview, she didn’t want to go and was screaming down the hall. We asked if she wanted to meet Woody, and he was just ready and waiting to help her. He ran to her and he sat and looked at her with those big eyes and she stopped crying.”

Those big eyes are naturally soothing, but Woody doesn’t stop there. He gets groomed on a weekly basis, including a bath, brushing and nail trimming, to be at his best for his PH friends.

“He’s probably better groomed than I am,” Roeber said. “It’s a lot of work to maintain, but we don’t want any stinky dogs for visitations.”

Even when he does not answer the call of duty, Woody is a source of comfort for everyone he encounters.

“The staff benefits from him for sure,” Roeber said. “Some days, a member of our team will stop by my office and just say ‘I need to spend a little time with Woody.’ He is a little bit of a celebrity.”

Woody may not know of his local fame or the current events of the world, but based on his fan mail and the paws-itive affirmations from his team, he sure does know a lot about love.

To report child abuse, visit projectharmony.com or call the Nebraska hotline at 1-800-652-1999.

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