Abby Hill, Founder/Executive Director
Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs in Newtown, CT raises dogs who are eligible to be matched with an adult or child with a psychiatric disability free of charge.
Founded in 2016 by Certified Professional Dog Trainer and leading dog behavior expert Abby Hill, Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs transforms lives for both the handler and members of the Newtown community who are an integral part of raising and training the dogs.
Our organization involves the community on multiple levels, bringing comfort, empowerment, and mental health education to every individual who meets our dogs over the two-year process from puppy to working service dog to placement.
Our puppies come from well-sourced, highly established service dog breeders who breed meticulously for temperament, workability, structural soundness, and health. While rescues are highly capable of becoming therapy dogs and exceptional family pets, Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs leaves no room for error when it comes to training and placing a Psychiatric Service Dog.
Each of our puppies are first placed with a volunteer family committed to providing a safe and loving home, socializing the dogs, and attending classes. When the puppies are 4 to 6 months old we match each with a volunteer local teacher and their family for the next year and a half, during which the teacher regularly brings the dog to their school. Research shows that having a dog in the classroom, even without direct physical contact, can promote positive social interaction, increase concentration, and reduce stress and anxiety. Students also learn about the dog’s purpose of ultimately serving someone with a psychiatric disability, and are educated about the needs of people struggling with mental illness.
In 2017 our Teen Trainer Program with Newtown High School will take our community mission one step further. Students identified by school leaders will be assigned to the dogs at intervals throughout the school day, and have the opportunity to train them. Students will also be required to participate in workshops about mental illness, and share information with their peers to help break the stigma.
Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs is headquartered at The Exceptional Pet's Dog Training Center in Newtown, CT, a 3,000 square foot facility designed to accommodate a variety of classes for thousands of dogs every year. While our Psychiatric Service Dogs will primarily spend most of their time training out in the real world with our volunteers, the dogs also receive the best training possible in group classes to learn necessary obedience skills by a compassionate, experienced team of top experts.
Abby Hill, Founder/Executive Director
Abby is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and dog behavior specialist with almost 20 years of experience. She is the founder and executive director of The Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs, overseeing the adoption, training and placement of Psychiatric Service Dogs.
Abby opened The Exceptional Pet in Newtown in 2000, where she and her staff train hundreds of dogs of all ages, breeds and circumstances in obedience and various dog sports. Abby also provides private training, including for those who want their pet dogs to become therapy or service dogs. In addition, she is Head Trainer at multiple animal rescues, an AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator, and a member of the National Association of Canine Scent Work. Abby has a special interest in Psychiatric Service Dogs because of a family history of anxiety and mental illness, including her mother who has her own emotional support dog. Abby lives with her three children, three dogs, seven chickens, one tortoise, one hamster... and a very patient husband.
Kristen Alesevich, Director/Puppy Trainer
Kristen began her journey with dogs in high school when she started working for a local kennel. Shocked by two dogs who had been permanently boarded because their families deemed them unsafe, she began researching ways to help them. This led to a love of dog training. After college Kristen began working at Guiding Eyes for the Blind where she was lucky enough to learn from Suzanne Clothier, who was helping to revamp much of the way the puppies were being raised. Beginning her time there in the breeding and cryogenics department, she eventually transitioned to the role of Central CT Region Coordinator which among other things, teaches classes for all puppies placed in the region from 6 weeks to 18 months. She remained until having children, at which time she decided to stay home, but maintained her relationship with Guiding Eyes as a volunteer. Kristen is working towards her CPDT-KA, and is a AKC Canine Good Citizen Evaluator. She believes watching relationships blossom between people and their dogs through positive training is an amazing gift, and that learning should never stop. Kristen is a lifetime Connecticut resident who shares her zoo home with her husband, three kids, two resident dogs, one service dog in training, six chickens, two cats, and one fish.
Lauren Wolfe, LPC, Mental Health Consultant
Lauren Wolfe is Licensed Professional Counselor who works with children and families. For more than 10 years Lauren has been helping children and teens with anxiety, social difficulties, Asperger’s Disorder, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, eating disorders, trauma and grief. She also is a parenting expert and utilizes the STEPS parenting program, as well as individualized support. Lauren incorporates individual and family counseling with clients. She utilizes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Play Therapy, Art Therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy, Neurofeedback, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT/ Tapping) and Yoga. Lauren’s gentle, non-judgmental manner puts children and families at ease. She also works with very young children, adolescents and adults. Lauren is honored to work with individuals and families as they heal and grow.
Bethel Village Square Animal Hospital, Medical Team
The staff and doctors practice the highest quality medicine and surgery with compassion, and are devoted to taking care of the medical needs of our dogs in training at cost.
Our Puppy Raisers:
Bridget teaches chemistry and biotechnology-forensic Science at Newtown High School. She resides in Southbury with her husband Pete, and their two boys Aidan (12) and Griffin (10). Her family is very active and they spend a lot of their time enjoying the outdoors and playing hockey. Bridget became interested in the mission of The Exceptional Sidekick after witnessing an increasing number of students in Newtown and surrounding towns, experience anxiety so severe that it interfered with their daily lives, including their ability to consistently attend school.
Since becoming a puppy raiser, she has been amazed at how easy it has become to be accompanied by a dog 24/7 and how the mere presence of the dog has elevated people’ s moods everywhere they go. Although challenging at times, Bridget has found the experience incredibly rewarding and has enjoyed all the conversations that have been sparked by raising the dogs.
Jennifer is a Newtown High School French teacher and lives in Bethel, CT with her husband Stephen, children Zach and Sara, two rescue dogs named Molly and Josie, and a rescue cat named Georgina. Jennifer became involved with The Exceptional Sidekick because of its unique cooperation with the Newtown schools. She loved the idea of having a puppy in school each day learning and training "on the job." The learning goes both ways, as Jennifer has realized, and she appreciates the skills she has picked up as a trainer.
She says that the best part about working with The Exceptional Sidekick has been all of the conversations she has with people in the community and at the high school about the role of service dogs in people's lives and mental health.
A reading teacher at Sandy Hook School, Laura and her family -- husband Steve; Fernando a retired guide dog; and two cats, Snickers and Bear -- have been raising Bella, for The Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs. A resident of Sandy Hook for 22 years, her two grown children (Jake, 22, away at college and Sarah, 25, a teacher) attended Newtown Schools, and dogs have always been a part of the family’ s life. Prior to working with The Exceptional SidekickService dogs, they raised two puppies for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
Laura says, “I was present at Sandy Hook School on 12/14...the day that forever changed my life. I now say ‘ Changed my life, not defines my life.’ I became involved with The Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs when I learned that these exceptional pups would not only go on to help people with psychiatric disabilities, but also in the training process the dogs would be partnered with educators in the Newtown School System and would be permitted to come to work with us. I am raising a puppy with a purpose, but this little bundle of fur has already given so much more back to me. This experience has been an integral part of my own healing and recovery.”
Pia is the Library Media Specialist at Reed Intermediate School in Newtown, so she and The Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs who she works with spend most of their time in a library that serves nearly 670 students in 5th and 6th grade.
Pia lives in Newtown with her husband, D.J.; children Ethan (10th grade) and Anika (8th grade); three rescue cats (Gretel, Arya and Luna); and a rescue dog (Emily). "The Zoo," as she affectionately calls it, is a home full of love, laughter, books - and pet hair!
She became involved with The Exceptional Sidekick before it even launched. After a street corner conversation with friend and Founder Abby Hill, Pia and her family were "all in!" Prior to the puppies' arrival, she helped to develop program materials regarding the proposed partnership with Newtown Public Schools.
She LOVES her time with the dogs. In addition to falling in love with each puppy in turn, she loves the fact that these puppies will be dedicating their lives to those who need them most, and she is grateful and honored to be a part of the education and training process.
Michelle is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Sandy Hook with her husband Dan; their three sons Logan (13), Owen (11) and Cole (8); and their rescued black lab named Cajun. When Michelle first learned about The Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs, she was drawn to the idea of training dogs to help people with mental illness. She hopes that raising these puppies will not only make a difference in someone’ s ability to perform everyday tasks as their Psychiatric Service Dog, but also help others – during the training process -- understand how mental illness can affect a person’ s life and family.
Michelle enjoys bringing the service dogs in training out in public and having the opportunity to educate children and adults about the organization and the amazing things a service dog can accomplish. Although it will be extremely difficult for Michelle and her family to let these puppies go on to their next chapter, they are excited about the impact these special canines will make on the lives of others.
The Exceptional Sidekick is a non-profit organization that transform lives by identifying, raising, and training exceptional Psychiatric Service Dogs to match -- at no cost -- with children and adults suffering from psychiatric disabilities, while engaging and educating the community in the process.
Copyright 2017 The Exceptional Sidekick Service Dogs