The close bond between people and dogs is not a new discovery, but it is heartening to hear that this connection is as strong as ever – particularly if this connection can help both people and dogs.The Kelev Tov (“Good Dog”) initiative is a perfect example of harnessing (in this case literally as well as figuratively) the connection in order to create a winwin situation for all involved.The Kelev Tov project is part of the wider Shekulo Tov (“Everything is Good”) organization, a nonprofit started by Adi Harlap in 2014 that helps people contending with mental health problems to gain skills and find employment.It is the only program in Israel that integrates people with mental health problems to employment working with animals. Harlap, a mother of two from Gedera, started to work at the Shekulo Tov organization in 2012 as a placement coordinator when she was nearing completion of her degree in criminology.In 2014, the organization held a competition to create an innovative initiative among the employees. It was clear to Harlap that she would utilize the thing that she cares about the most, dogs, and build a program around this.The original idea was to build a rehabilitative farm for dogs and people, but during meetings with professional advisers in the fields of rehabilitation and business within Shekulo Tov, the program began to take on a different shape. It was decided to establish an initiative that would assist people contending with mental health problems (or “contenders” as they are known at Kelev Tov and in the greater world of rehabilitation) to enter the workforce via training with animals.In order to gain a clearer idea of how this would work, Harlap went to work in every possible job with dogs that a contender could do. She advertised on Facebook and worked as a dog sitter, a dog walker, a veterinary assistant, in a pet shop and kennels and even in a canine grooming parlor! These experiences helped her refine her ideas in order to fit in with Shekulo Tov’s rehabilitative aims and she concluded that the job of dog walker was the most appropriate one to begin with, as it offers independence, integration into the community and an opportunity to connect with people and enter their homes as well as working independently and managing a business. Harlap decided to carry out a survey in local dog parks, so she distributed 200 fliers asking questions such as how much dog owners paid dog walkers, whether there were stigmas regarding contenders and whether they would give them a key to their home. As a result of this survey, she came to the conclusions that are still a fundamental part of the project today – the main one being that consistency, reliability and professionalism are most important.Harlap’s initiative was chosen out of five projects competing and that is how Kelev Tov was born.After the project was selected, Harlap started with a pilot program in the Shfela (coastal plain) region and began to locate people who would be suitable for the program. She went to rehabilitative frameworks and other frameworks where she would be able to find suitable people.The contenders’ training includes the close accompaniment of the regional manager, a job carried out by Adi in the past. The preliminary training includes a meeting where the regional manager explains what being a dog walker involves and taking the contenders to the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals where they learn how to lead dogs. The regional manager accompanies them every step of the way and it is their role to be the regular person who is there for the contender and the client.Harlap recounts that “three years on from the competition, the program is a great success. Whoever loves animals and is eligible for ‘rehabilitative services’ as part of the mental health basket of the medical funds, can participate in the program and undergo the training. We also offer advanced training; each area has a professional who provides assistance and further training to the contender, which is just as important.”The contenders receive professional training once a fortnight. In the Shfela region, Oren Chen, a canine behavioral expert from Tel Aviv University and a private trainer, provides the instruction.“I have a group of dog walkers whom I teach all aspects of dog training, starting from evolution and genetics to veterinary knowledge and first aid and how to foster good behavior so that they can be true professionals.”Chen adds that each of the contenders needs to give a lecture during the course, on which they receive feedback that helps them develop their skills. L., a 20-something-year-old contender from Rishon Lezion who participated in the dog walking program, describes how she is contending with post-trauma and an eating disorder that she developed in primary school. A victim of children’s taunts, she later developed agoraphobia (a fear of open spaces).It took 10 years to diagnose her, during which time she barely managed to hold down a job for more than a day or two.L. loves animals but was not aware of a suitable framework, so when she heard about the Kelev Tov program from a social worker, she jumped at the chance of joining. After meeting with Harlap, she joined the program. L. describes the satisfaction that dog walking gives her.“Even if one is having a really bad day, you open the door and see wagging tails and your mood improves.” She states that the training “has given her the confidence to persevere and succeed at something.”Harlap stresses that Kelev Tov continues to follow and support the contenders when they join the workforce. Some of them have become independent dog walkers, which “requires a lot of logistics, marketing, keeping clients and developing the relationship with them. The dog receives a bone on their birthday.”
The Kelev Tov project currently operates in four areas of Israel: the Shfela, the Gush Dan region, the Sharon and Jerusalem, and has more than 25 regular clients. The price is relatively cheap for dog walking services, with a half-hour walk costing NIS 20, which also helps in attracting new customers. Harlap emphasizes that at Kelev Tov, each person walks only one dog at a time, rather than several, as many dog walkers do, so both the client and the dog receive personal and individual attention.The clients appear to be satisfied and some of have even adopted dogs through their involvement with the Kelev Tov program. As someone who is frequently asked whether I am a dog walker while walking my dogs, I would say it is a service that appears to be in demand, particularly with people working more and more hours while their dog is at home alone.So for people who want to support a great cause and provide their dog with entertainment, exercise and a warm human connection while you are away, Kelev Tov appears to be barking up the right tree!Kelev Tov can be contacted at 050-209- 1366 or through their Facebook page.