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The Power of the Paw: Dog Therapy Achieves Stunning Results with Struggling Teens

By Hugh C. McBride

They are faithful companions, vigilant protectors, and sources of unconditional affection. They assist individuals who have visual disabilities, locate survivors of earthquakes and explosions, and help keep drugs and explosives out of public places.

And as it turns out, dogs are also quite effective therapists.

From troubled teens and incarcerated adults to individuals who are suffering from a wide range of developmental and cognitive-behavioral disorders, canine therapy programs have produced stunning results, with many four-footed participants fostering connections with those whom others had written off as being beyond salvageable.

Not bad for employees who work for treats and belly rubs.

About Animal Therapy

Dogs have lived and worked alongside humans for centuries, but their service in therapeutic programs dates back only a few decades. In the middle 1970s, a former nurse named Elaine Smith founded Therapy Dogs International, Inc. Smith’s undertaking was inspired in large part by her service in a British hospital, where she observed patients’ positive reactions when the facility’s chaplain brought his dog with him on visits.

Smith’s effort was focused on preparing dogs and their human partners to visit hospitals, assisted-living facilities, and other such institutions, where their presence could help break the monotony and ease the angst of the patients. But as the years passed, a number of experts noted that the dogs’ calming effects on patients produced tangible, medically beneficial results, including reduced stress levels, lowered blood pressure, and improved outlooks.

Flashing forward 30-plus years, dogs are now incorporated into programs that treat individuals with autism, various physical and mental conditions, behavior problems, and social disorders.

Building Bridges, Providing Purpose

In her Dec. 30, 2008 article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writer Nancy Cambria described the effects of a local effort to pair delinquent teens with abandoned dogs. The program is a joint venture between Cindy Vickers’s Loosen the Leash organization and Hogan Street, a rehabilitative facility for what Cambria described as “some of Missouri's most serious juvenile offenders.”

The dog program, Cambria wrote, teaches teens how to care for and train dogs who will (hopefully) then be adopted into caring homes:

But in a world where teens like Ryan and dogs like King have been given few boundaries, little love and endless turmoil, it shows the juveniles something even greater. Patience, respect, praise, empathy and control don't just win over disobedient dogs, but also are the tools the teens must use to build their own second chance at a future.

Lewis Mueller, a regional administrator with the Missouri Division of Youth Services, said Vickers' program was a natural match for Hogan Street, where the teens spend their days working through the myriad emotional and physical scars that led them to commit irrational, sometimes violent crimes.

Vickers said dogs like King are looking for trustworthy, consistent and praising leaders. For the teens, the dogs' loyalty and affection are a palpable demonstration of their own faith in another – a feeling that many of the teens shut off early in life to survive.

"Some of these kids have never been loved or taken care of in the way we are taking care of these dogs," Vickers said.

Encouraging Positive Behavior

Struggling youth who work with dogs come away with much more than an understanding of how to train and care for a pet.

At Copper Canyon Academy, a therapeutic residential boarding school for teen girls, dogs help students gain insights into and control over their own attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. The school, which is also home to a renowned equine-assisted therapy program, has found that the dog program adds both a “touch of home” as well as a valuable therapeutic component to the campus.

“The animal is going to mirror the emotions the girls are expressing,” said Susannah Fox, the CCA therapist who heads the dog program. For girls who are working to control their own anger, frustration, or aggression, Fox said, this process is encouraged and rewarded by the dogs, who, as the girls bring their behaviors under control, will become calmer and more agreeable themselves.

When dealing with animals that are unpredictable, occasionally disobedient, and sometimes downright defiant, the girls have an opportunity to see how others might have viewed them in the past. And as they begin to notice parallels between behaviors that the dogs exhibit and actions that they or people they know have taken, they are able to see themselves in a different light.

“The benefit is that there is this exchange going on between the girls and the dogs,” Fox said. “These [animals] are the best therapists ever,” she said. “When the girls work with them, it can be magical.”

A Unique Opportunity for Growth & Development

Any animal lover will attest to the power of spending time in the presence of dogs, cats, horses, and other creatures. But as the website Equine Therapy makes clear, animal-assisted therapy encompasses much more than getting “good vibes” from a friendly critter:

  • Studies have shown that spending even 10 to 15 minutes with a friendly animal can increase the amount of endorphins that are released into the body, and decrease the amount of cortisol (a hormone that is related to stress and arousal).
  • Facilities that choose to implement animal-assisted therapy typically conduct extensive studies and develop strict rules and guidelines for their programs. Far from being haphazard, these programs are focused and intentional, and often produce marked positive results.
  • Animal-assisted therapy provides an experience with an animal that is non-judgmental, gives affection unconditionally, and provides opportunities for physical and emotional therapy. Therapeutic animals promote confidence and self-esteem while motivating kids to interact and get stronger.
  • Counselors have seen teenagers who are unresponsive to the counselor open up and actually "talk" to a therapy dog or horse. Some are so overwhelmed by a therapy dog's unconditional kindness that they break down and cry. This kind of emotional breakthrough is vital in the treatment of troubled or at-risk teenagers, and allows the teens to begin moving toward emotional and psychological healing.

As the Copper Canyon website reports, this healing results from the professional application of solid therapeutic principles, imparted through interaction with some of nature’s most profound creatures.

“Animals don't lie, manipulate, or cheat. They are direct in their communication and they respond to direct and clear communication from others,” the Copper Canyon website says. “As students work with the animals, they begin to realize that lying, manipulating and cheating don't work; they begin to form bonds and to expand their horizons beyond themselves.”