ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – “I love him so much, he’s a good snuggler.” Wherever you find Colleen Van Tiem, you’ll find her service dog, Branch, not far behind. Van Tiem is paralyzed on her right leg from the knee down after an unexpected stroke back in 2012. She has had to relearn how to walk and uses a cane to get around, but Branch will eventually replace that. In the last six months, she says this pup has changed her life, giving her companionship and confidence.

“I don’t think I’m doing it justice how much he added to my life,” Van Tiem said.”It helps with so much anxiety. I get afraid that I will have another stroke and so when he just lays with me, I don’t know,
it’s amazing. I don’t know if it’s the other heartbeat, no judgment, they just love you no matter what.”

She is one of many who turned to a service dog over the last few months. The nonprofit, Service Dogs of New Mexico, has seen the demand more than triple since the pandemic. They went from 16 dogs in 2019 to now more than 70.

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“After being shut down for two years with nothing, people are in such a deep dark place that when they come into the program, and we find the dogs for them, you can just see how much their life changes,” Briaun Prichard, the owner of Services Dogs of New Mexico said.

Even kids with anxiety sparked by the pandemic turned to dogs instead of medication, like 10-year-old Abigail Nunziato. She calls Mico, her service dog, a best friend who will be heading to the classroom with her this fall.

“She’s going to help with my anxiety so that way I feel better out in public and stuff like that,” Nunziato said.

Her mom, Sarah Selleck, says this four-legged friend has been a blessing to the family already. “If her anxiety is high, (or) she had a rough day at school, you name it, she gets to see this cute little face and it washes away,” said Selleck.

Service Dogs of New Mexico say they have people from all across the country coming to them because they’re one of the few that caters to children and young adults.