Animal-Assisted Mental Health for Youth at-Risk
Life Experience/Prior Learning Summary
The use of animal-assisted activities to enhance the mental health of at-risk and troubled youth sparked my interest and began my study which has spanned four decades. Being an animal behavior specialist, I have always been interested in the correlation between humans and animals. I have also been interested in how and why animals improve the lives of humans, especially children. The objective of my study is partly personal. I have a troubled son whose mental health greatly improved when he interacted with his golden retriever.
The term at-risk is widely used, but vaguely understood. However, at-risk is defined in many ways. In general, at-risk refers to poor life outcomes, such as committing crimes, being unwanted, neglected, disabled, abused, a failure in school, death of parents, economic dependency, or even incarceration (Moore, 2006). Many argue it isn’t the child who is at-risk, but the environment in which the child resides. Others argue all children are at-risk in one way or another. I have learned that simply because a young person resides in an environment considered at-risk, or has faced abuse or low self-esteem, doesn’t mean the child will face incarceration, school failure, or bad life outcomes in general.
At-risk is defined, but not limited to:
- Poor life choices
- Committing crimes
- Failure in school
- Poverty level living
- Death of parents
- Having low self-esteem
Animal-Assisted Activities and Children from the Division of Child and Family Services
I discovered the benefits of Animal-Assisted Activities, (AAA), before it became popular. In 1975, along with Judy Becker, my best friend and director of the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS), I started working with children who were in the DCFS system. We showed and trained dogs together, so it seemed to make perfect sense to pair the at-risk children we were helping, with animals we were training. We not only decided to help young people, but elderly as well. We began doing animal-assisted activities for both elderly and at-risk children. Their smiles were proof of our success.
Judy would choose children from within the DCFS system, who she thought would benefit most from AAA. We spent time educating the children on how to interact with the dogs we placed with them. Each child was paired with one of our show dogs, and we practiced obedience work with the canine-child pair. Preparation took roughly two weeks, working after school three days a week, with the children and the dogs. Some groups took longer, and some groups picked it up faster. As soon as we were sure the children understood and were compatible with the dogs we paired them with, they would present a program, similar to a mini dog show, for the elderly and disabled residents at our local geriatric and rehabilitation center, Ruby Mountain Manor.
Judy retired in the mid-80’s and moved away from Elko, however, I continued to work with troubled children. I learned not only children benefit from animal-assisted activities, but my mental health improves as well. Watching sad, abused, neglected, and abandoned kids respond to the wet kisses only dogs can give, brightens anyone’s day.
The benefits of AAA to children within the DCFS system are:
- Building confidence
- Learning dog training skills
- Teaching the children to think of others besides themselves (in this case the elderly, disabled, and the dogs)
- Offer distractions from a troubled life
- Allows them to feel the love of an animal
- The children can smile even if their lives are dismal
Teaching Group Dog Classes to Children
In 1976, I started a 4-H dog group. The group was a huge success. I started out with approximately 30 students. The most I had at one time was around 60. I kept the classes fairly small, offering four to six classes with eight to ten 4-H’ers in each class. Most of the young people in my first group, were not considered to be at-risk, and most had never been in trouble. However, parents began to approach me asking for help with their troubled children. I decided to funnel the troubled youth into my 4-H program, which included dogs, and support from myself and other 4-H’ers. When children feel part of a tight knit group, their self-esteem is bolstered and it makes them feel successful (Connor & Miller, 2000). Troubled youth who didn’t own dogs, were mentored and taught obedience skills using my personal dogs. What I lacked in knowledge, I made up for in animals.
Parents and teachers began telling me success stories. The children from my classes were learning to communicate, relax, play, show empathy, and were exhibiting fewer aggressive tendencies. They developed loyal and positive friendships, and were doing better at school. I could see the results as well.
Most of the children in my classes have normal lives with normal families and friends. Some of them however, experience family, school, and peer problems. Some of the children reveal instances of abuse or neglect. In working with 4-H children, I have received training in using proper procedures to report abuse or neglect. During our training, we are finger printed and a background check is done. As leaders, we learn the importance of confidentiality and boundaries. But, when I encounter problems with my students and take proper actions, they usually return to class and keep me informed on what is going on in their lives.
I have primarily depended on my personal observations and experiences to become more effective in helping enhance the mental health of at-risk youth using animal-assisted activities. I have made observations which have changed the way I interact with children and animals. Some of the observations may contradict what I have studied or read, but I have learned to be objective. I have learned many young people harboring tough exteriors feel comfortable in the companionship of a dog and are able to let their guard down and run and play (Connor & Miller, 2000). Play is therapeutic for young people who are unable to experience freedom and laughter in their home environment (Robin & Bensel, 1985). Watching a big, tough kid run and play, laughing out loud, while a puppy is nipping at his heels, is heartwarming. I have learned children and animals feel emotions and develop trust in much the same ways. I have learned five minutes of play with a puppy can open doors that would take a therapist, hours to accomplish.
After working with hundreds of kids and watching and observing their relationships with animals, I have learned each child has specific needs. Their relationship with animals may be totally different from the next child-animal relationship. But, as different as each relationship is, much is the same. Young people learn empathy, loyalty, and responsibility when working with animals. All those who dare to develop a relationship with animals, feels loved and accepted (Anderson & Anderson, 1999). I have learned it isn’t just the animals making a difference in children’s lives, but the companionship of like minded, stable people--people who also love animals, and understand and share the same feelings the children have towards the animals.
The benefit of AAA on groups of children is:
- Group cohesion and support
- Love from animals
- Learning empathy, loyalty, and responsibility
- Being a part of something worthwhile
- Following through and seeing results
- Making friends with the same interests
- Learning to communicate with animals, children, and group leader
- Learning marketable training and job skills
- Learn to relax and play
- Bolsters self-esteem
- Abuse is often identified and reported to proper authorities
Learning from Boris Levinson’s Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy and Other Sources
Realizing I needed to learn more about how animals benefit the mental health of young people, I obtained a used, worn out copy of Boris Levisons’s book Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy, (1969). In his book, Levinson acknowledges children he works with need love objects, such as pets, to make them feel confident, to care for, and be protective towards. Pets fill a niche in the life of a troubled child, that adults, counselors, or teachers can not. Reading Levinson’s book set me further on the path of learning and helping others. I began to understand why interaction with animals was so important in children’s lives. The children in my dog classes fit everything Boris Levinson talked about. The more classes the kids took, the more confident they became. Some children came back, class after class. And, with each class, they become better dog trainers.
I learned contact with an animal increases “feel good” and “love” hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine. Oxytocin has a calming effect and has actually been proven to reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure. It also lowers cortisol levels and increases beta-endorphins and dopamine (Fine, 2010). Oxytocin deprivation can cause depression and social misconduct (Olmert, 2009). This explained what I was witnessing from the children in my classes. When the kids would get to class and start interacting with the dogs and other children, they become calm and focused on their dogs. They would begin to smile and joke with each other. Animals are non-judgmental, they love the children unconditionally and don’t care how the child looks (Calcaterra et al, 2015). I have watched depressed and troubled youngsters burst into healing laughter at the antics of a playful puppy or kitten.
In trying to better understand how animals improve the mental health of children, I read anything I could find linking the mental well-being of children to animals. I studied the attachment theory presented by John Bowlby, suggesting children are born pre-programmed to form attachments with others for survival and safety. I also studied the biophilia hypothesis, which explains the instinctive bond between humans and other living organisms; animism, which is the belief that inanimate objects are as alive as animate objects; anthropocentrism, the early understanding of plants and animals by analogy to humans; anthropomorphism, which is the use of animals as a metaphor; and anthrozoology, which is the study of the interactions between human-non-human animals. I had children in my group which fit into one or all of these categories. In learning the reasons for having a close relationship with an animal, makes it easier to help the child get the most out of the AAA’s offered.
In learning why AAA benefits children, I found:
- Children need love objects
- Children need to feel worthwhile
- Animals fill a void in the child’s life which no-one else can fill
- Interaction with animals activates the brain to produce oxytocin and dopamine
- Interaction with animals can lower anxiety and reduce stress levels
- Interaction with animals can lower cortisol levels
- Children fit John Bowlby’s attachment theory in many different ways
- Children’s interaction with non-human animals is considered the study of anthrozoology and children can have biophilia, animism, anthropocentric, and anthropomorphism tendencies.
Animal-Assisted Activities in the Lives of Foster Children
In 1984, I opened my home to a foster daughter. My friend Judy was to blame for this surprisingly wonderful experience. Being the director of DCFS, she came across many remarkable kids just needing a little guidance and love. Katie was no different. Katie was 15 when she became part of our family. The only thing she requested was to be placed in a foster home with animals. Our home certainly met that description. I had not planned on taking in a foster child, but I did, and Katie lived with us for five years. She learned to groom, train, and show dogs. She became a confident, radiant girl. She said she would have ended up addicted, pregnant, and possibly even dead if it hadn’t been for the love of animals coupled with people who loved her, and shared her love of animals. Helping Katie was one of the most meaningful and inspiring things I have done in my life. I learned a lot about troubled teens from Katie. I also learned what a difference animals made in her life.
Two years prior to Katie moving in with me, Judy’s niece, Jacki, came to live with her. Her story was much the same as Katie’s. Jacki learned to train and show dogs with us just as Katie had done. She credits her success to the fact she loved dogs and they loved her.
Animal-assisted activities improve the lives of foster children in the following ways:
- Gives them a purpose in life
- Helps reduce the risk of drug use
- Helps teach responsibility
- Makes them feel loved and needed and helps reduce the desire to be promiscuous
- Teaches them marketable job skills and life lessons
- Makes them feel successful
The Benefit of Job-Related Animal-Assisted Activities
In 1987, I opened a large boarding, grooming, and training facility. I boarded and groomed every kind of animal, and trained and showed dogs and horses. Brebeau Kennels became very successful. We were open seven days a week, 365 days a year. Considering the size and scope of our business, we hired as many as 18 full and part-time employees at any given time. The kennel became the afternoon hangout for neighborhood youngsters and it became the perfect platform to help at-risk and troubled youth. I noticed, many came day after day, volunteering to sweep, mop, pooper-scoop, or walk rescue dogs. Parents later told me, helping after school with the animals, saved their child. I insisted on seeing report cards, calling parents, and being an active disciplinarian when needed. I also became a confidant and shoulder to lean on. When grades slipped, these youngsters weren’t allowed to come back until their grades were up. I learned as much from these after-school and weekend volunteers, as they did from helping me. I watched them develop a sense of responsibility and confidence they hadn’t possessed before coming to the kennel. They became a part of something worthwhile. Many of these young people became employees and joined our Brebeau Kennel family.
Not long after opening, I was approached by JOIN, Job Opportunities in Nevada, about hiring some of the young people considered to be at-risk or suffering from disabilities. The program was such that JOIN paid wages, and I gave them jobs. I mentored and coached them while they were at work. The young people I hired were held to high standards. Tardiness, slipping grades, laziness, or truancy wasn’t tolerated by JOIN or myself. I taught the young people important life and employment skills. Being part of a successful business made them feel successful as well.
One young women in particular, stands out in my mind. Her name is Helene and she suffers from Autism. Since I had helped many young people, JOIN asked me, if I would be able to help Helene. One of Helene’s fears was the telephone, which rang almost not-stop at the kennel. But, Helene loved cats which made her eager to come to work despite her dislike of the constantly ringing phone. Our office cat liked to curl up next to the phone, which Helene couldn’t understand. It wasn’t long until she figured if the cat liked the phone, maybe it wasn't so bad. I let her start answering the phone by simply saying, “Brebeau Kennels, please hold while I transfer your call”. By not having to actually speak with strangers, and after becoming desensitized by the constant ringing of the phone, she began racing to answer it before anyone else could get to it. Her father told me she began using the phone at home. He said many times she would answer the home phone in the same manner she answered the kennel phone, simply saying “hello, please hold while I transfer you to my Dad”. Occasionally, she would forget she was at home and answer her home phone by saying, “Brebeau Kennels please hold”. Hearing this warmed my heart.
Ruby Mountain Resource Center (RMRC) offers opportunities for people with mental and physical disabilities. About the same time JOIN enlisted my help, so did RMRC. Each week, one of the members of RMRC, along with a coach, would come to walk or groom the rescue dogs. The weekly visits became the sought after reward for the person of the week at RMRC. The rescue dogs paid-it-forward by helping the disabled young people feel as though something in their life depended on them, instead of them depending on everyone else.
Our community established a very successful adult drug court program in 2005, and in 2007, established a juvenile drug court program. The program is very successful and the young people are required to find and keep jobs, go to school and keep their grades up, and stay clean and sober. It is often difficult for young people to find jobs once they have a record. I hired several young people from drug court. When I hired Kimberly in 2009, she was a member of juvenile drug court. Kimberly was having drug related seizures and withdrawal symptoms. She had been arrested, been through rehab, and had a record. No one would hire her. I decided to give her a chance. At the time I hired her, she was clean and trying to turn her life around. She just needed a job to fulfill her drug court requirements. Kimberly loved animals and had a good work ethic. She became a very dedicated employee and stayed with me until I sold my business. She even stayed on with the new owners until she got a full time job at the local animal shelter. Kimberly attributes her success to the fact she loved to come to work to see the animals. Every time I see her, she tells me working with animals, and the fact I hired her, saved her life.
Hiring at-risk youth can benefit them in many ways:
- Teaches confidence
- Bolsters self-esteem
- Teaches responsibility
- Makes the child feel successful and responsible
- Gives them a reason to get out of bed in the morning
- Teaches job skills and life lessons
- Makes them feel loved and needed
- Offers mentoring and coaching
- The child feels part of a group and receives group support
Using Animal-Assisted Activities to Help At-Risk Youth Set Goals And Develop Life Plans
Using animal-assisted activities to help at-risk youth set goals and develop life plans, works extremely well. Adhering to the principles of behavior, set forth in Richard Malott’s (2008), book Principles of Behavior, I helped young people design a performance management plan. The first, and one of the most important, aspects of working with youth, is to help them set small, achievable, weekly goals. Even the simplest, smallest goal, when completed, marks a successful milestone for the youth. When the terms of the performance management plan were not followed, an agreed on consequences was imposed. It seems to me, young people who have been neglected, have never set goals, or been encouraged to strive for anything better. Whether teaching the 4-H dog obedience program, working with the youth from JOIN, the youth I hired, or the volunteers who helped me at the kennel, I required them to set goals. If the goals we agreed on were not achieved, we discussed how to change and actually achieve the weekly goals. Suffering the consequences of not completing weekly goals was an incentive to work hard. Setting goals, to many of the youth, is a foreign concept. Many do not know the meaning of the word “goal”. Expectations can be confusing and frightening for them. Even though some weeks went by without the mention of the weekly goal, much to the relief of the youth, the seed was planted and was growing in the back of their minds. Many of the goals I helped the kids set included animals. Interaction with animals was the reward and bargaining point for successfully completing their goals. Whether obedience training, grooming, or simply socializing the animals, goals became an important part of our interactions. As Brian Tracy says, goals in writing are dreams with a deadline.
Using animal-assisted activities to help at-risk youth set goals and develop life plans is beneficial because:
- The children’s desire to work with animals is strong
- Working with animals can be the reward for a goal which has been achieved
- The at-risk youth feels a sense of accomplishment and receives a reward that is loved and cherished
- The young people fear losing their animal privileges if goals aren’t completed
Animal-Assisted Interventions, Activities, Therapy, Psychotherapy, Physical Therapy, and Life Coaching
I have been coaching young people since 1976, but in 2012, I attended a three-day class on life coaching conducted by the Life Coach Institute of Orange County. Becoming a certified life coach answered many questions I had on helping young people. I learned the difference between coaching and therapy, and the problems requiring therapy versus coaching. Attending the life coach certification class, helped me design a road map to help young people get and stay on the right path. Becoming a certified life coach has improved my communications skills and helped me explore and identify the needs of the kids I have been able to help the young people implement a plan, and help them identify and remove blocks keeping them from attaining their goals. Because I have learned so much from this class, I wish I had become a certified life coach years ago. I have since incorporated animals into my coaching business.
In knowing animals make such a difference in the lives of so many, in 2015, I attended a seminar conducted by PESI, a non-profit organization which does continuing education for mental health professionals, entitled Animal-Assisted Interventions: An Incredible Range of Therapeutic Benefits. In attending this eight-hour seminar, I learned much of what I already knew from self-observation and self-study, but I also learned so much more. The speaker, Jonathan Jordan, MSW, LCSW, shared his insight on animal-assisted activities, animal-assisted interventions, and animal-assisted therapy. We covered the history of AAI and the founding organizations. We were also given guidelines for choosing and handling animals and legal and health concerns when working with animals. We also learned which clients would benefit the most from AAI. We also learned how using animals to help people not only improves mental health but physical health as well. Jonathan shared his experiences working with occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists, and recreation therapists. This seminar enlightened and validated my use of animals in assisting to improve the mental health of at-risk youth.
As we covered details on the physical aspect of AAT in the seminar, I remembered working with a physical therapist who was helping a young girl who had suffered nerve and brain damage due to a stroke. The girl had lost interest in physical therapy and wasn’t willing to participate any more because the exercises were very painful and difficult. The physical therapist asked if I would come in a couple times a week to help with the girl’s recovery. My dogs are all trained to respond to hand signals. We showed the girl how to do the proper hand signals to get the dog to respond. If the hand signals were not executed properly, the dog would not respond, requiring the girl to keep trying until she got it right. By doing the hand signals correctly, the dog would respond, which was her reward for a correct signal. She would then be allowed to pet and give the dog a treat. She worked very hard and became very proficient at getting her hand signals correct. She came several times after she was released from therapy to visit us at the kennel. I feel like I benefit from children’s successes as much as they do.
By attending both seminars I learned:
- The difference between coaching and therapy
- The difference in all animal-assisted interventions and activities including animal-assisted therapies
- How using coaching and animal-assisted activities can benefit the youth I work with
The Benefit of Animal Rescue on At-Risk Youth
I do extensive rescue work with animals. Many of the animals have severe physical disabilities. I find many of the more difficult children, bond and form relationships with the disabled rescues. I feel many of the troubled youth relate more to the disabled animals. Disabilities make life much harder for the animals. A hard life is something these troubled youth can easily relate to.
Due to the extensive rescue work I did at my kennel, the court considered working there a community service. I allowed young people to fulfill their court-ordered community service by helping socialize, exercise, groom, feed, and even train the rescue animals. Many of the young people who were court-ordered to do community service at my kennel, went on to become employees of mine. After working for me, some of the young people went on to work for others in the animal field.
Because of the rescue work I did, and the troubled youth I worked with, in 2004, I was approached by several instructors at a local youth detention facility, and asked to design a dog program for the incarcerated youth at the center. I was to be in charge of the program, and instruct the boys on how to train the dogs. We all agreed this type of program would aide in the rehabilitation of youthful offenders, improve staff and inmate relations, save dogs on death row, and do our community a service. I researched many programs offering AAA and AAT. The Latham Foundation and Pet Partners, formerly Delta Society, offered valuable information on animal-assisted programs. I found both organizations to be helpful in the development of the animal program for Nevada Youth Training Camp, NYTC. The program was designed to mimic successful prison-animal programs such as Project Pooch at MacLaren Correctional Facility for incarcerated youth, and other successful programs in existence at that time such as CARES at Kit Carson Correctional Center, and TLC at Mansfield Correctional Institution.
While devising the program for NYTC, I did a telephone interview with Charlene Cordo, Director of the dog program at Colorado Boy's Ranch. She became a great resource for me. She stated the youth in the program were required to interview and attend pet-therapy sessions before they were allowed into the program. The youth were required to maintain high standards of discipline to get into and remain in the program. She stated the dog program is the best incentive they have for the boys to be on their best behavior. When threatened with loosing their dogs, or not being allowed in the program, it is for some, the first time in their lives they have had a reason to follow the rules. This advice has stayed with me, and I have threatened unruly youth with losing their privileges of volunteering, or their spot in training class. The thought of losing what they have worked so hard for seems to carry a lot of weight among the young people. Losing one of the only carefree, normal, loving relationships in their lives can be a harrowing thought (Cusack, 1988).
I put a lot of thought into the type of training program which would best benefit all involved. I came up with several options. The first option was to rescue dogs and train them as service and assistance dogs to help handicapped people in our community. After doing a lot of research on training service dogs, I learned the average training time for service dogs is 12 to 18 months. That being the average stay of the youth at NYTC. The other option was to rescue dogs on death row and obedience train them, making them adoptable, well socialized, pets. This option made more sense. Rescued dogs could be trained in as little as 12 weeks and adopted to the community as well-trained and socialized pets. With all the details worked out and necessary documentation in place, I was ready to present my proposal to the administrators of NYTC. At the same time, NYTC was going through budget cuts and a new administration was put in place.
Due to the restructuring of administration and budget cuts, the program was never actually implemented by NYTC, but I learned so much from the research I did in devising the program. Even today, I find myself referring to something I learned in the research project.
At the same time I was designing a dog program for NYTC, I was invited to do a short program for the young men of NYTC on dog training. The most memorable part of my program happened after the presentation was over. A small framed, black boy gently sat down on the floor next to my Boston Terrier, Mucho. He gently began to stroke her head and tell me about the dog he had waiting for him at home. His attending officer told me it was the first time since his arrival, several months prior, that he had said more than “yes sir” or “no sir”. This was one of the many times I realized how beneficial animal-assisted activities were in helping improve the mental health of at-risk and troubled youth.
In designing the program for NYTC I learned:
- The importance of using and learning from models already in place at other facilities
- Animals are a great incentive to keep troubled youth on their best behavior
- How successful animal programs can be in the lives of incarcerated youth
- Animal programs can also save many animals on death row and be a community service
- Animals can help rehabilitate troubled youth
- Can teach the incarcerated young people valuable job skills and offer them hope of a career in the animal field when they get released
- Working with animals can help reduce recidivism rates
Recognition for Many Years of Service to Young People
For the last 40 years, I have conducted dog classes year round for 4-H, boy and girl scouts, at-risk, and troubled youth. I have held the 4-H dog show every year, and have recruited the youth in my classes to help put on benefit matches for local rescue groups. I have hired at-risk youth, and worked with children from DCFS and in 2013, I received an unexpected and humbling honor. I was recognized as the "volunteer of the year" for more than 35 years of service working with youth from our state. The award was presented by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Agriculture Extension Service. This award means more to me than any of the other awards I have ever received. Getting acknowledged for doing something I love is very endearing to me. Helping at-risk youth with animal-assisted activities is mutually beneficial to the mental health of both me, and the young people I work with.
Helping young people, especially young people who are troubled, disabled, or considered at-risk, has been part of my life's work for the past 40 years. At the time my son needed help I was unable to help him. But, helping hundreds of other children overcome the problems they are facing, lightens the guilt I feel over not being able to help my son. I have learned to never give up on any child no matter how abused, neglected, disabled, addicted, or traumatized they may seem. Using animals to help children will one day pay off, even if the pay off is something as simple as a smile.
There is not psychiatrist in the world
Like a puppy licking your face.