By Meagan Douches
When Alexis Zanetti took her toddler for his first salon haircut last year, he was overwhelmed and terrified. The experience can be difficult for any child, but Zanetti’s now three-year-old son Tommy has a speech delay and sensory issues, which made it difficult for him to communicate with everyone at the salon.
“He would freak out.” Zanetti said, “Crying, screaming and thrashing his arms—which was the real dangerous part. We were scared he was going to hit the hair dresser or hurt himself somehow.”
Tommy needed a change, so when his speech therapist recommended Adorn Beauty Salon and Spa in Bordentown, Zanetti decided to give it a try.
The salon specializes in working with children and adults with special needs and is the first beauty facility in the country that offers the use of service dogs for customers. Zanetti and her husband Jason booked an appointment, and they saw an immediate difference.
“It was night and day, really,” Zanetti said. “His first visit, he still cried a little, but he wasn’t afraid. He had some time to go back in the play yard and see the dogs. It put him in a more peaceful mood, so by the time he got in the chair, he was already kind of calm.”
Salon owner Sandi Bongart uses items like the “tickle machine”—a small massager which is used as a mock hair buzzer—to introduce kids like Tommy to the concept of a haircut. She lets them “practice” on the dogs with the mock buzzer, fake nail clippers and toothbrushes which she says makes the experience less scary for the kids.
Bongart has owned Adorn Beauty for the past 21 years. Located downtown on Farnsworth Avenue, Adorn not only offers a unique customer experience, it was the first salon in the country to ever use service dogs.
She got the idea after reading about the impact that service dogs can have on kids with autism. Studies by the University of Missouri report that service dogs can help to significantly increase social skills in children with autism and developmental disabilities. The children are able to bond with the animals, which provides a sense of calmness towards the stimuli surrounding them.
Bongart’s four service dogs offer emotional support for customers and are also trained according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines. She has served children and adults with disabilities including autism, bipolar disorder, ADHD, depression and post traumatic stress disorder.
In 2009, Bongart was awarded the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities’ Above and Beyond Access Award for the success of her program.
She currently divides her time between running the salon, volunteering in the community and working as a child advocate for local students. Bongart brings the dogs into the salon with her when she works on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. She says her customers just love them.
“We have a lot of people that come that don’t even have disabilities,” Bongart said, “They just like dogs.”
And there certainly is something soothing about sitting with a fluffy little Pomeranian like Storm on your lap, or petting Pikachu, a seven pound Pom Pom Bichin, as he slowly drifts off to sleep in your arms.
Bongart’s service dogs also inlcude Minnie Mouse, an 18 pound Pom Pom Bichon named for the mouse-shaped spot on her side, and Schnookums, a 16 pound white Bichon Frise who loves to be the center of attention.
Each service dog is fitted with a special jacket with a handle on top to allow anyone to easily pick him or her up. Along with her husband, Bob, Bongart breeds and trains the dogs at her home.
Bongart’s expertise in working with children and adults with developmental disabilities brings customers from all over the East Coast—Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina.
“We went to another salon before,” Zanetti said, “They were fine, but they didn’t have any expertise in how to handle [Tommy]. From the first visit [to Adorn], it was so much different than taking him somewhere else.”
As many of Bongart’s clients began to notice the positive impact that the dogs had on their children, some became interested in adopting Bongart’s newly bred puppies. She started training and selling the puppies to clients, and today, she has a six- to eight-month waiting list for adoption.
Zanetti was one of those customers. She decided to welcome one of Bongart’s dogs into her own family after seeing the way that her son interacted with him at the salon.
“He just likes animals so much and the way he reacted to the dogs here, it’s been really good for him,” Zanetti said.
After seeing the impact that the service dogs had on her clients, Bongart decided that she wanted to share this concept with other businesses. In 2011, she trademarked her service dog program and began introducing it to other salons and companies.
So far, she has installed the program in one other salon based in California, though her goal is to encourage more businesses on the East Coast to utilize service dogs. In addition to salons, Bongart believes that the service dogs could be beneficial to operations, such as dentist’s offices, in order to improve the customer experience.
“I’m really trying to get someone else to do this on the East Coast here. I’ve got maybe 10 more years and when I stop, there’s nobody else around.”
Besides assisting customers at the salon, Bongart uses her dogs to help with community service programs around the area. She regularly participates in events at Fort Dix, Project Freedom Assisted Living and at schools around the area.
Bongart is currently planning programs for the Bordentown Chocolate Walk set for Feb. 12, and the Bordentown Street Fair, to be held in May. She says one of her dogs is expecting a new litter of puppies in early February, which she plans to bring to the salon for people to visit.
While she keeps herself busy working an average of 60 hours per week, it’s easy to see that Bongart loves her job and enjoys working with the community.
“I’m happy,” she said. “Even if no one knows what I’m doing, it’s very rewarding. I’m on a natural high all the time, I guess. The day that I have to say, ‘ugh, I gotta go to work,’ is the day I need to get out of the business, and that day hasn’t come.”