Building community health with PAWS

UNC PAWS trains emotional support dogs that are placed with community members living with chronic mental health conditions.

“A dog is man’s best friend” is an adage agreed upon by canine lovers everywhere.

UNC PAWS, a program housed under the UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, is putting that old saying into practice. The organization trains emotional support dogs that are placed with individuals living with chronic mental health conditions.

For people living with chronic conditions like schizophrenia and depression, socialization can be especially challenging. The dogs offer comfort, support and purpose to their human companions, but the people are not the only beneficiaries.

Founded in 2014 as a shelter-to-pet recovery program, UNC PAWS began training emotional support dogs less than two years ago. Since then, about 50 dogs have been placed by UNC PAWS. Posey, a six-month-old rescue who will finish her training in the program in early June, will be the program’s latest support dog.

Each of the dogs that go through the program are rescue dogs from the Chatham County Animal Shelter.

Sunny Westerman, the program coordinator for UNC PAWS considers the program a win-win for humans and dogs alike.

“There are perfectly wonderful dogs sitting in the shelter right now and they can benefit just as much as the people who we match them with,” she said.

For the dogs, this is a new chance to find a forever home; for the people, it’s an opportunity for a new companion and friend as well as a bridge to other social relationships, Westerman explains, “when you’re out walking alone people aren’t likely to come up and talk to you but if you’re walking a dog they’re a lot more likely to come up and have a conversation.”