The outside of a dog is the very best thing for the inside of a person." — Intermountain Therapy Animals patient

Every child deserves love and happiness. But children don't always get what they deserve, as the staff at Primary Children's Residential Treatment Center knows so well. The center houses children, ranging in age from 6 or 7 up to preteen, who are emotionally disturbed.

Every dog can offer love and companionship, but some dogs do more, as members of Intermountain Therapy Animals can attest. By offering unconditional love and acceptance, dogs can work their way into troubled psyches and create a happy place.

Every child likes to draw and paint and create art. But not all paintings mean the same, either. Artwork, too, can reach places words can't, can help children express feelings, master new skills.

Children, dogs, art. They can come together in beautiful ways.

And that is exactly what is happening with the animal therapy and art programs at the Residential Treatment Center. Those programs have also resulted in an art exhibit, which will be on display at the Evolutionary Healthcare clinic, 461 E. 200 South, Suite 100.

"Paws for Healing: Art and Animal Therapies at Primary Children's RTC" opens tonight and continues through Feb. 10. On display will be paintings of therapy dogs done by children at RTC. Ceramic dogs and doghouses created by the children will also be displayed and will be for sale to raise funds for the therapy programs.

You don't usually find an art gallery inside a health clinic, but it's a way to create a light, healthful space, says Carol Osborn, a physician at Evolutionary Healthcare. "Art can be therapeutic, a distraction from pain or illness."

It also gives them a way to be involved in the community, she says. "We offer our space to a lot of nonprofit groups for art shows." They are a participant in the monthly downtown Gallery Strolls. You don't have to be a patient to come see the art; anyone is welcome anytime, Osborn adds.

She is excited about the therapy animal exhibit because she's seen firsthand what animal therapy can do. "Animals are also a distraction from pain and problems."

Primary Children's RTC is just one of many facilities that work with Intermountain Therapy Animals, but it's a special place to come, says Susan Daynes, who brings her golden retriever, Colonel, to the center.

"While Colonel is here, he is their dog. They get to pet him, tell him what to do. Some of these children have had such a hard time. It is heart-rending to see how the interactions can change lives."

One of the young boys is going to put on his own dog show with Colonel for all the children at the center. Something that seems simple can be a huge step in the children's lives, says Laura Joesten, a recreational therapist at RTC. Just the ability to follow directions, to sequence tasks and follow through gives the child a huge jolt of self-esteem, she says.

The animals also help children learn and express feelings. Daynes and Colonel were working with another boy who was soon going to be moving to a different facility. He came to tell Colonel goodbye. "He said to Colonel, 'You know how much I love you, but I have to go."' It was one of the first times he had ever expressed love, she says.

Another boy had witnessed the killing of small pets by his father and "he couldn't relate to anyone," says Joesten. He began meeting with the dogs once a week, and then he went on a "field-trip" to the dogwash to see how the dog, Georgia, got ready to come to the center.

They explained to him that after getting the bath, Georgia had to get into a dryer cabinet, but she didn't like it because of the noise. "The boy offered to get in with her, so she would know she had a friend. That was a huge breakthrough in getting him to consider the feelings of others," says Kathy Klotz, executive director of ITA.

Mary Kemp has been bringing her two basset hounds, Fizban and Tasselhoff, to RTC for more than two years. "Fiz and Tass just love to sit and be petted. Tass searches out one child and tries to get a belly rub. Fiz has to get a pet from everyone before he will settle down."

Sometimes, Kemp says, the kids will hide treats for the dogs to find and are so delighted when the dogs do it. "Dogs are so loving, so nonjudgmental. They accept everything. The kids relax and open up to them," she says. "And who can resist these faces?"

Shelley Gallagher has a Dalmatian named Ripken that she brings to the center. They've started doing agility training with some of the kids, setting up a course in the gym and letting the kids put Ripken through the weave or over jumps. "It's fun for the kids and fun for Ripken. He loves it. He loves to play with kids. Since he's a Dalmatian and associated with fire stations, they've taught him to do the 'Stop, drop and roll.' The kids learn and Ripken learns."

What's great about the Dalmatian, she says, is that "he is not only willing to learn, but he has so much energy. The kids tire out before he does."

She has found that "the kids are often standoffish with me, but they go right up to him and give him a hug. That's a good starting point."

A variety of different breeds take part in the therapy program, which enables them to match dogs with different needs of the children, says Jill Comarell, another recreational therapist at the center. Some dogs are active, some are calmer, but they all can help, she says, "Giving directions, learning boundaries, that all brings a feeling of success."

Art does the same thing, says Louise Fishman, art instructor at the center. "Art gives kids a chance to play. It helps them express themselves, to master new skills."

But it is no surprise that the dogs are a frequent and popular subject, she says. "In the past, we've done a big pet mural, we've done individual paintings, we've made ceramic dog bowls, and now the dogs and doghouses. So many of these kids have never had a chance to be a success, but now they can."

The artwork that will be on display is from a collection of paintings the children at the center gave to ITA. They are a treasure, says Klotz. She pulls out a painting of a dog named Stella. It had a scar on its nose from abuse, and that resonated with the artist, who gave Stella a big, wide scar. But the artist also added hearts and flowers in the background that seem to symbolize a happy ending for Stella and, perhaps, hope for himself.

The dogs have an effect on so many levels, says Klotz. They help a child open up. They teach trust. They are a source of unconditional acceptance. "Every child needs acceptance before he can blossom."

It's what "Paws for Healing" — the art show and the therapy programs — is all about.

If you go

What: "Paws for Healing" art exhibit

Where: Evolutionary Healthcare, 461 E. 200 South, Suite 100

When: 6-8 p.m. tonight; regular clinic hours through Feb. 10

Cost: free