By Leah Asmelash

When Ann Tolliver started going to UNC PAWS, she was depressed, had symptoms of paranoia, and was having trouble getting out of bed. But each trip she made to Chatham County was a little victory against her mental illness.

“Doing something that day made me feel as if I didn’t just spend the day in bed or at home,” she said. “I had done something. That gave a certain amount of satisfaction.”

Max, a chihuahua/ Lab mix, learns how to fist bump with his trainer. Photo credit: Leah Asmelash

Tolliver, 35, was part of the Shelter-to-Pet program within the Peer Assisted Wellness Support program or PAWS, that’s connected to the School of Medicine at UNC Chapel Hill. The program lasted 10 weeks, and clients with mental illness taught shelter dogs basic commands to make them suitable for adoption.

“We consider this to be a recovery program,” said Sunny Westerman, coordinator of UNC PAWS. “Clients aren’t in an acute phase of their illness, rather they’re trying to get back out in the community, to make friends, to do something meaningful.”

UNC PAWS is located on a spacious, 40-acre farm in Pittsboro called The Farm at Penny Lane. The farm also hosts other types of therapy programs for clients with mental illness, such as art and horticulture therapy.

PAWS is comprised of three programs within the UNC Center of Excellence in Community Mental Health, designed to help clients battling chronic mental illness with their recovery and rehabilitation. It began as a shelter-to-pet program, which Tolliver was a part of. PAWS later expanded services to include a puppy development center in 2015, where clients and community members helped socialize puppies training to be service dogs by going on group outings. Finally, they added a personal support dog program in 2016, where inmates at local correctional facilities train shelter dogs for eight weeks to be personal support animals.

Dogs don’t hurt

Westerman said dogs are a great way to help people with mental illness re-engage with the community.

“[Dogs] don’t ask anything of them except to love them,” Westerman said. “Some days our clients just sat on the ground petting them or brushing them. Other days, some serious training went on and the client gained self-esteem watching the dog learn the command.”

Tolliver said one reason dogs are so wonderful to work with when dealing with a severe mental health disorder is that the dogs will not hurt someone the way people can.

Max is the sole animal left in the PAWS program. He could be the last one if the program does not raise enough funding by month’s end. Photo credit: Leah Asmelash

“They’re not capable of the type of hurt or malice that people necessarily are capable of inflicting,” she said.

Tolliver said that people could just go to a shelter themselves and pet the animals, but UNC PAWS provides an entirely different experience.

“You get to talk to people that are also going through what you are,” she said. “You get to form almost a kind of camaraderie, and it’s just fun. It’s a good thing to do. It gets you out of your house into a useful activity, one that benefits other things than you.”

Tolliver said the socialization provided by UNC PAWS was important for her, because at the time she was isolated from everybody but her family and mental health team.

“I didn’t have a lot of social interaction with people outside of my family or my therapist, so it was nice to talk to other people. There were four other people in my group, so it was nice to get to know them a little bit,” she said.

And now, Tolliver is headed to law school.

Proven therapy

Now, UNC PAWS only has just one program operating: the personal support dog program where the rambunctious Max, a chihuahua-Lab mix is learning his commands. Max is also the only dog on the farm, a stark contrast to the five dogs PAWS once housed when funding was more plentiful.

Want to help PAWS? You can make a gift here.
“Ideally, we would love to have all kinds of things running here, but funding is definitely an issue,” Westerman said.

Funding has been a problem for UNC PAWS and now the program is now in danger of going under unless they raise $50,000 by the end of June.

UNC PAWS was initially funded by a managed care organization, which Westerman said recognized that clients were not one-size-fits-all and have other needs outside of vocational and traditional therapy.

“There’s so many proven health benefits to interacting with a dog,” said Westerman. “They could see that there are real benefits to our program, and unfortunately that funding dried up.”

UNC PAWS has been existing on grants and private donations since, but Westerman said mental health dollars have been shrinking, making the program even more difficult to fund.

According to development director Ed Binanay, people have been generous, but they’re still about $13,000 short of their goal.

Tolliver said UNC PAWS helps people significantly, in addition to the dogs, which is why it should be saved.

“I understand that people are all for it for the dogs, because mental health isn’t really something that a lot of people have an interest in,” she said. “But it offers a lot of things for people who work with the dogs, and face it, people are important.”

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