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Amy Johnson Feb 11, 2011

Helping Youth Heal While They Teach Dogs to Heel

In my last blog, I shared a little about the plight of shelter dogs -- one shelter dog in particular. Nia has been living in a narrow wire kennel run for at least four months. Despite living in confined quarters with limited human contact and almost non-existent mental or emotional stimulation, Nia stays in seemingly satisfactory spirits.

Using a dog like Nia with at-risk or adjudicated adolescents can help reach them at a level that may not be achieved or one that would take a long time to achieve. We recently began working with a group of ten teenage girls from a court referred residential placement facility at the dog shelter. Each girl works with a partner and the duo train one of the shelter dogs using positive training techniques while also learning about body language and behaviors in dogs twice a week for six weeks. The benefits for the five dogs, including Nia, who will go through the program are priceless, but I don’t imagine you’re reading this to hear about strengthening the psyche of canines. The benefits for the troubled teens, however, are also invaluable.

Whether we’re working with boys or girls, the young trainers consistently make parallels between themselves and their dogs. What is so effective about these parallels is that it helps the youth see their behaviors or traits with more objectivity. If a trainer sees herself as stubborn, for example, and the dog with whom she is working is stubborn, it not only allows her to see her own behaviors objectively, from a more concrete perspective; but it is also a powerful demonstration of behavior modification. When the dog’s behavior is positively corrected, it provides an opportunity to see that ‘change’ is possible and how to make that change. If a dog has been abused and exhibits timid and insecure behaviors, the teen can recognize not only how her behavior might look, but once she works on building the confidence of the dog, she can generalize that to her own confidence building beliefs…both subconsciously and consciously. Because the youth are naturally drawn to specific dogs through the traits and values they share, the partnership provides a built-in sense of hope, strength and resiliency.

As therapists, we could certainly talk about these constructs. We could use a variety of counseling theories and modalities that might be quite effective, but here is where we often find ourselves on the periphery of healing. The bonding with the dog ensures that the healing is happening right then and there, both emotionally and neurologically. Utilizing dogs harnesses the emotional connection between the youth and their dogs. Applying neuroscience principles, we know that the experiences, memories and cognitions associated with strong emotions are the ones that are better remembered and repeated (or avoided). The girls who squeal with excitement as they move with swiftness to begin working with, hugging and kissing their dogs are marinating in emotion -which is initiating healing – in the girls and dogs like Nia, which is the essence of therapy.

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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