Pairing animals with at-risk youth

Imani and priscilla 3Our blog post about Andrew, who lived in a residential youth facility, detailed how training a dog named Bear helped both the animal and the young man develop and grow.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Using a dog like Bear with at-risk or incarcerated adolescents can help staff reach them at a level they probably couldn’t reach with other means – or that would take much more time to achieve.

We have seen this kind of progress firsthand while participating as animal assisted therapists in a program that teamed teenage girls from a court-referred residential placement facility with abandoned dogs at a shelter. Twice a week for six weeks, each of us partnered with two girls to train a shelter dog using positive reinforcement techniques. The training involved learning about the selected dog’s body language and general behavior and how to use behavior modification to encourage positive changes.

Parallel lives

We watched as the girls, as expected, saw the parallels between themselves and the dogs. This development is particularly valuable because it allows them to not only recognize similar behaviors in themselves, but to see those behaviors or traits with more objectivity than they could have mustered before.

If, for example, a trainer knew she was stubborn and the dog she worked with also seemed stubborn, she could look at the animal’s response to the behavior modification techniques she was using with fresh eyes. If the dog’s behavior could improve with training, couldn’t hers? If she liked the dog more when he was less stubborn, wouldn’t people like her more, too, if she became less stubborn?

Similarly, when an abused dog had timid behavior, the young trainer could see the impact her personality or behavior had on the animal and learn how to adjust to build trust that would lead to progress. As she built the dog’s confidence, she built her own confidence, too, realizing that if she could help an animal feel safe and loved, then she had value. This realization could come either consciously or subconsciously, but it registered with her on some level.

Becoming part of the process and seeing positive outcomes offered hope for girls who might have felt hopeless.

Shared traits

What’s most interesting about this approach to working with at-risk or adjudicated youth is how the young people are naturally drawn to specific dogs that are similar to themselves – they share certain traits, characteristics, or behaviors. Because of this, the human-animal partnership provides a built-in sense of hope, strength, and resiliency.

As therapists, this shows us how the bonding with the dog ensures that there is both emotional and neurological healing happening right then and there, in the time the young people are working with their shelter dog partners. Neuroscience principals tell us that the experiences, memories, and cognitions associated with strong emotions are the ones we remember and repeat – or avoid.

So . . . we secretly rejoiced when we saw any of the girls squealing with excitement as they entered the shelter and saw their dogs. The hugs and kisses generated by those wonderfully positive emotions were concrete signs that healing had started.

And that was one of our goals.

What is your biggest challenge working with animals and young people?

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