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article imageRonik the Husky greets veterans with a warm heart and lots of fur Special

By Stephen Pope     Feb 19, 2015 in World
Pittsburgh - Ronik, a four-year-old Siberian Husky, graced Veterans Place in Pittsburgh Wednesday with lots of kisses, a warm heart and plenty of fur on his first trip to the transitional housing program for U.S. veterans.
All residents at Veterans Place, or "Vets Place" as it is commonly referred to, have been homeless and have turned to the organization for housing, food and job placement assistance. "Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard, or "Veterans Place," is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to ending homelessness among Veterans in the Pittsburgh region. Founded in 1996 and located in Pittsburgh's East End, we strive to provide a variety of supportive services for homeless Veterans in the Pittsburgh area," its website says.
Because residents at the facility are not permitted to have animals, Director of Client Services Rob Hamilton came up with the idea of bringing service dogs to veterans. Many residents have had dogs, cats and other animals and for one reason or another have had to give up their pets because of being homeless.
Ronik looks patiently at Rob Hamilton  Director of Client Services as he along with his mom Jessica ...
Ronik looks patiently at Rob Hamilton, Director of Client Services as he along with his mom Jessica Zagari and Angela Stutzman (in blue) tour the offices of Veterans Place. Steve Pope l Digital Journal
"The use of therapy dogs has been proven to be quite effective when it comes to treating disorders such as PTSD which we primarily see, as well as other mental health and substance abuse issues," said Hamilton. "Knowing that, I asked my friend who owns the dog if they would bring him here."
Hamilton said that the veterans who Ronik visited were "very receptive" to the Husky and after watching him walk around Vets Place some looked forward to having him return.
"The vet center seems to be a very relaxing place where the clients feel safe. They have built a support system within themselves and obviously [veterans] have a good report with the staff," said Ronik's mom Jessica Zagari who brings Ronik to work with her everyday.
The Husky is well-qualified to fulfill his mission as a therapy and service dog which is to "make people smile," said Zagari. Ronik has earned the American Kennel Club's "Canine Good Citizen" title, as well as certification from Therapy Dog International. Dogs must be a year old and show no signs of aggression and be able to pass a series of rigid tests that evaluate the dog’s behavior around people with the use service equipment such as wheelchairs and crutches, before being certified as a therapy dog and earning the Canine Good Citizen title.
DJ, a pseudonym used for privacy reasons, is a U.S. Navy veteran who met Ronik on Wednesday said, "He is a beautiful dog. It's always good to see a well-groomed and well-mannered dog." While Ronik, which translates to "Healer of Hearts" in native American was certainly on his best behavior while visiting Vets Place Wednesday, this has not always been the case Zagari said.
"One time he escaped out of the back yard and it was freezing cold and raining. A search party of three people searched everywhere for him....after two hours of looking, we ended up finding him two houses down partying with a bunch of teenagers around a fire. He immediately knew he was in trouble and walked himself back home," said Zagari.
Perhaps Ronik s mischievous days aren t quite over as he is seen here intently looking for an escape...
Perhaps Ronik's mischievous days aren't quite over as he is seen here intently looking for an escape route to explore Veterans Place on his own. Steve Pope l Digital Journal
In addition to bringing smiles to those he meets, Ronik can also provide "Deep Pressure Therapy" by using his weight to apply pressure to a person's body in various places that elicit a calming effect, that can help in panic attacks.
Just before leaving Veterans Place Ronik takes a few seconds to pose for a picture with his mom Jess...
Just before leaving Veterans Place Ronik takes a few seconds to pose for a picture with his mom Jessica Zagari, his friend Angela Stutzman (left), Executive Director Marlon Ferguson and Rob Hamilton (right). Steve Pope l Digital Journal
Hamilton while looking forward to Ronik's next visit said, "Not only would we like to have Ronik return for a visit, we would actually like to get a onsite animal" for Vets Place.
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