When working with juvenile sex offenders, professionals may feel that the treatment protocol should vary from traditional treatment methods. While there is the offense-specific component that needs to be addressed, overall youth who have committed sexual offenses respond well to the same treatment as other adjudicated youth.
Like their peers, youth who are charged with sex crimes are reported to have limited social skills which can lead to poor peer relationships and social isolation, feelings of poor self worth, low self efficacy, inability to take another person’s perspective and a lack of empathy. They also have significant deficits in social competence and difficulty establishing and maintaining peer relationships. These deficient social skills, poor peer relationships and social isolation contribute to the difficulties presented in these juveniles.
For these reasons, the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) posit that interventions addressing these deficits rather than focusing on the offense alone are critical for the rehabilitation. Treatment interventions that focus on enhancing skill deficits (such as impulse control and peer relations), anger management and fostering empathy appear to be beneficial.
I’d like to focus on the empathy piece and how using animal assisted therapy, specifically with rescue dogs, can foster that in this population. Youth who are able to experience empathy, theorists argue and research supports, inhibit antisocial behavior towards others. Because many delinquent behaviors stem from a lack of empathy, a boost in empathy levels not only takes the adolescent out of his small, self-centered world, but allows him better understanding of his own feelings and feelings of others.
Following this logic, adolescents are able to grow and expand their worlds to include others and their feelings. Empathy cannot be taught…it must be experienced. Without empathy, at-risk youth are more likely to engage in risky behaviors without regard to the feelings of others…including the injuring of animals or peers.
Animal assisted therapy can be an effective intervention when used as an adjunct to treatment. Special emphasis is placed on the development of empathy through interactions with dog. An understanding of animal behavior and positive attachment relationships are the basis for empathy development.
In our program, we work with behaviorally challenged, unwanted shelter dogs and have found that it absolutely evokes and cultivates empathic feelings as well as improves impulse control, manages anger and fosters necessary pro-social skills. By providing a safe, judgment-free environment working with dogs, youth often seen as “bad” are given an opportunity to demonstrate (and receive) unconditional love as well as accomplish something “good” and selfless.
More importantly, using the dogs can help break down barriers that clinicians often face with this population. These barriers are often exacerbated by the fact that many clients do not willingly seek counseling and through program mandates have to meet regularly with the staff therapist. Many times, the adolescents witness how facilitators interact with the dogs and make assumptions that the clinician will show them the same kindness.
Through the use of the dogs, it also provides an opportunity for the clinician to speak to the youth about appropriate forms of touch and recognize when the feedback from the dog is positive or negative so the youth can modify his behaviors during their interaction. On the other hand…or paw…the youth who are typically starved for affection are able to hug and cuddle with the dogs and release some of the necessary, cortisol-reducing oxytocin (the attachment hormone).
The youth in this dog program want to participate and make efforts to monitor and control their behavior with their staff and peers in order to continue. Oftentimes, the positive reactions of staff and peers to the youth’s modifications help further encourage change. Through this experiential form of therapy with youth with sexual offense charges, empathy is acquired and nurtured in a happy, fun and positive way.
Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.