An adolescent was aggressive. He had to be physically managed by staff daily. This severely neglected youth, who also lost a brother to a drug related incident recently, was so full of feelings of rage, rejection, fear and sadness that it resulted in flurries of his fists punching the walls, beds, other residents and staff. Throughout the six months he'd been in placement at the residential youth facility, he had been the staff's biggest challenge. Most of the staff wanted him gone. Then, last week, many of these same staffers gave him the Student of the Week award.
So what happened? Why the change in his demeanor? Well, credit would have to go to Bear, an akita/husky mix that this teen began working with the week prior in an animal assisted therapy program.
The program requires seven residents to meet twice a week, two hours at a time, for an educational dog training program. Many of the staff thought he didn’t “deserve” to be a part of this group because of his hostile behavior, but the director of treatment thought being selected to participate might be just the boost he needed. He was right.
Child trauma expert Dr. James Garbarino asserts that “neglect leaves a social vacuum that sends a child looking for a connection somewhere else or with someone else.” In this case, the connection came in the form of a non-judgmental canine with behavioral challenges of his own. Bear came from a neglectful background and was removed from his home, just like our adolescent boy.
Dogs provide a safe venue in which to “practice” pro-social skills that are often minimal or very limited in troubled youth. Larry Brendtro wrote that “being treated as a person of value and being able to show concern for others gives life purpose and meaning.” As human beings, we all need to have purpose and meaning. Without the opportunity to give and receive kindness, Brendtro adds, “young people remain self-centered and fail to develop empathy."
Empathy cannot be taught…only experienced. So asking the youth in the program to "save" or improve the lives of “their” shelter dogs provides opportunities to practice empathy as well as a sense of responsibility, accountability and accomplishment, not to mention practicing patience and impulse control.
This example, of course, is just one example of many that has occurred through the interaction of vulnerable humans and animals. The intention of this blog is to highlight the myriad of benefits that have been documented and witnessed through the use of animal assisted therapy. I look forward to hearing your reactions and experiences in the coming months.
Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.