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Meet Gizmo, the therapy dog behind a new, national mental health curriculum for kids

Gizmo's mission is to help kids find coping skills and begin to heal from the pandemic.
/ Source: TODAY

Gizmo is a small pup with a big mission: to help kids heal from the COVID-19 pandemic. As psychological and emotional issues among kids skyrocket, this 3-and-a-half pound dog is the voice behind a new curriculum, "Gizmo's Pawsome Guide to Mental Health," which will teach kids in schools across America about mental health.

"Children have been over-the-top responsive to this cute pup and his message," Helen Pridgen, vice president of chapter programs for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which helped create the program, told TODAY in an email. "Gizmo helps children understand there are things they can do to help themselves when they feel sad, mad or worried."

Gizmo has a natural gift for detecting when people are sad, according to his owner.Jen Adams

The Maltese, papillon and Japanese Chin mix first got into therapy dog work after he was approached by a teen on a hiking trail when he was a puppy, his owner, Jen Adams, told TODAY.

"He crawled into the boy's lap. I asked the boy if he was OK with that. He didn't respond but started gently petting Gizmo as tear drops fell from his eyes," she recalled. "A lady then came down the trail and asked if that was my dog. I said yes. She said, 'Your dog knows. That's my son, and he just learned his father passed in a tragic accident.' Ever since then, I noticed that Gizmo has an acute sense for when someone is suffering, and he immediately wants to help."

The goal of the new curriculum, written from Gizmo's perspective, is to teach young children to care for their mental health by recognizing warning signs and developing healthy coping strategies.

Gizmo's mental health program is being implemented in his home state of Connecticut.Jen Adams

"We needed a way that was approachable, accepting and reduced the stigma related to mental health," Heather Spada, a mental health professional who helped create the curriculum with nonprofit United Way, told TODAY in an email.

Gizmo got involved in the effort to create a kids' mental health school program when Andrea Iger Duarte, who works in the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, saw him at an event where he was working as a therapy dog.

"Andrea witnessed how helpful Gizmo was in connecting to the public and getting the materials out," Spada said. "All they had to do was sit him comfortably in a basket on the materials table and people came right up to see him. ... That led to the book."

The cover of "Gizmo's Pawsome Guide to Mental Health."Jen Adams

"Gizmo’s Pawsome Guide to Mental Health" is currently being implemented in 100 Connecticut classrooms with more than 3,000 children. A larger rollout is planned for the upcoming academic year. The guide is also available to the public online.