Lab mix brightens the day for homeless shelter residents

Pleasant Valley staffer Woody Gibbs and Ann; the dog helps “create an environment that feels a little more like home.” (Photo credit: Larry Roberts/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

The Pleasant Valley Men’s Shelter in northwest Pittsburgh, Pa. is a place for men to stay after they’ve fallen on hard times and lost their jobs and homes. For two months at a time, homeless men can have a bed to sleep on, a roof over their heads, and the help of a case manager to find permanent homes and new jobs.

But now, thanks to a new program — and one very special pooch — Pleasant Valley feels much less like a shelter and much more like the peaceful respite it was meant to be.

Pleasant Valley had canine visitors in the past; a humane society therapy dog visited the facility several times last year, bringing some much-needed cheer to the shelter’s residents. The success of that program made Pleasant Valley Shelter Director Jay Poliziani wonder what it might be like to have a dog there to greet the guys every day.

“We wanted to create an environment that feels a little more like home,” Poliziani tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Pleasant Valley staff members contacted the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society (WPHS), who said they had the perfect dog for the men at the shelter — Ann, an 8-year-old Labrador Retriever mix who’d been surrendered by her former family after the birth of a new baby. WPHS staff said Ann definitely had the temperament and personality Pleasant Valley residents could connect with.

With Ann’s arrival nearing, Poliziani got permission from the Allegheny County Department of Human Services to allow a small group of selected residents to stay longer than the allotted two months to participate in the new canine caretaker program he was developing at Pleasant Valley. Then Poliziani set about selecting the four lucky men who would spend the next six months taking responsibility of Ann and turning their lives around.

When Poliziani asked the guys if they wouldn’t mind taking on a bit of extra work around the shelter, they all replied that they were happy to do so, he says.

“Then I explained that the extra work would be to take care of the dog we were getting, and both men morphed into 10-year-old boys in front of my eyes,” Poliziani remembers.

One of Ann’s caretakers, Pleasant Valley resident Clay Vanterpool, says the facility’s new four-legged friend “bridges the gap between being here and what you’ve lost — a home, and playing with a dog.”

Residential assistant Mike Moore thinks Ann, who arrived at Pleasant Valley only a few days ago, is already making a noticeable impact. She spends her days greeting the residents and her nights cuddling up at their feet while they watch television or read books.

“The atmosphere has been a lot calmer with Ann here,” Moore says. “In shelters, you deal with guys who have mental health issues. The dog addresses the loneliness factor and offers unconditional love.”

Woody Gibbs, a former Pleasant Valley resident three times over and who now works as the shelter’s day monitor, says he thinks Ann will inspire the men who live there and give them hope for a brighter future.

“Just having her around might make someone think, ‘It would be nice to live in a place where I could have a dog of my own,” Gibbs says of Ann.

“I wish we had had a dog when I was living here,” he adds.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Northside Common Ministries