As therapists, we are taught that who we are is based on the collection of our experiences. Aristotle said something like: as for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. This is often forgotten in todays society where we tell children how to consider others feelings and we tell our clients how to forgive, but really, these constructs are only truly understood when they are experienced. Using experiential learning assists in helping clients make meaning from their experiences. Id like to share a story about a 15 year old girl who is in a court-referred residential placement and a scrappy, black lab mix with whom she worked in a program at her facility.
For nearly three weeks, the edgy teen and her unfocused, anxious dog just did not connect. Throughout those three weeks, there was an ample amount of whining from both ends of the leash. The teen was frustrated and feeling rejected because the little lab mix (Cutie) she was trying to train would not pay attention to her. Cutie was stressed and anxious because she had not come from a place where humans were kind and would pull frantically to escape her leashed confinement.
The ebullient teen persevered. She monitored her own frustration level, kept her voice friendly and soothing, became a human Pez dispenser providing hot dog bits and ensured that Cutie understood what was expected of her through boundary setting and consistency. Finally, Cutie began to seek attention from the teen and respond to the commands that were given. SUCCESS! As giddy girls often do, she bounced around the room, waving her arms and singing her own praises.
At one point, I asked her what this accomplishment meant to her. She responded with something so profound and unexpected to me. She said, "At first I didnt want to work with Cutie, she didnt like me and I didnt like her. But then, I just kept trying and trying and finally, she trusted me. It made me think that maybe if I keep trying with my mom, that eventually I can regain her trust."
What a powerful and relevant lesson. Using dog training as a therapeutic intervention, the teen was not only in a safe and, more often than not, fun environment, she was open and willing to explore her internal self. Using experiential learning added experiences to her history on which to build and grow and ultimately, use some of her newly developed strategies to work on the relationship with her mother.
Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.