One of the adolescents in our dog program said the other day that he now loves dogs. Just like that. That might not seem like much of a stretch for a court adjudicated youth in a 12 week dog program, but to him a youth whose life revolved around getting high-- it was. He has a Maltese and a pitbull puppy at home and liked how they looked and liked the reactions that he got from others, but that's as far as it went. After learning about dogs and working with the shelter dogs we have in the program, he said he now truly loves his dogs at home and treats them better. I asked him if that changed how his dogs responded to him and he emphatically said yes! They never approached him before, but now, when he's home on pass, they sleep with him. From a therapeutic perspective, we might ask, so what? What can this do to help him integrate positively back into society?
I believe that this demonstrates a growth in pro social skills and in particular, an increased level of empathy. Youth who are able to experience empathy, theorists argue and research supports, inhibit antisocial behavior towards others (Feshbach & Feshback, 1982; Miller & Eisenberg, 1988; Zhou et al, 2002). Margaret Mead (1934) described empathy as the ability to take on the role of another to understand the appropriate social response. Because many delinquent behaviors stem from a lack of empathy (which highly correlates with poor affect regulation, low social competence and greater likelihood for externalizing problems), a boost in empathy levels not only takes the child out of his small, self-centered world, but allows him better understanding of his own feelings and feelings of others.
Following this logic, what the adolescent above was really saying was that he is growing and expanding his world to include others and their feelings. Learning to truly love dogs has made it possible for him to respect humans and thats pretty exciting.
Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.