Most people I know would agree: Animals are amazing! The benefits of human/animal interactions have been widely acknowledged throughout the world. Studies have been done to document the many benefits related to stress, social interactions and social behavior, and limited evidence suggests additional benefits to immune system response and pain management. As a professional dog trainer, I see these benefits in my clients every day, and I wanted to use my education, skills, and love for dogs and people to help make a difference in our community. A program utilizing animal-assisted therapy seemed like a perfect fit for the children of KidsPeace.
Armed with information and knowledge of needs at both our local animal shelter and our local KidsPeace chapter, I approached Louis Shagawat, Executive Director of KidsPeace’s Bowdon Campus (GA), in the spring of 2016. We met to discuss the possibilities of a program to benefit the children at the campus, as well as to benefit the animals at our Carroll County Animal Shelter. I presented a six-week program that focused on teaching the kids how to safely interact with the animals, while teaching the animals beneficial skills to help them get adopted.
By October 2016 our program became a reality, and the first group of girls from KidsPeace met me at the shelter, along with their counselor and an additional staff member. Teaching them how to interact safely with the animals involves discussions on trust, mutual respect, empathy, body language, and communication. Our program meets at the shelter for one hour per week for six weeks. During this time, the kids are able to interact with the animals as we make observations about behavior, and together make decisions on what skills might be most helpful to getting the animal adopted.
After each meeting at the shelter, the children return to the KidsPeace campus and meet in a group with their counselor. The group discussions include topics that come up based on what happens at the shelter. While I am not privy to the specifics, I do know that the kids are amazed at the similarities between their feelings and experiences and those of many of the animals at the shelter.
During each six-week cycle, I make sure to watch the kids begin — some with reservations, some with an abundance of confidence, and some with little to no observable emotion. Over the course of the six weeks, I watch each of them learn about animal behavior, including nonverbal communication. They gain valuable communication and life skills, and become eager to help the next animal.
I see them show restraint when they want to pet an animal, but see that animal is not comfortable. I see them start to empathize when a dog doesn’t want to go back into the kennel area after a visit, or when an animal behaves awkwardly or only wants to sit in a lap to receive affection. I see them truly learn about human-animal bonds, and begin to give affection and help one another when someone is not sure what to do or how to behave.
At the end of our one-hour visit to the shelter on week six of the program, I ask the kids to write a letter of gratitude to the animals, to the shelter staff, to another member of the group, or to anyone involved in making the program possible. I ask them to share their letters with the group. Hearing these notes of gratitude read out loud has reduced me to tears on many occasions. When these young people thank the dogs and share that they know how it feels to be left behind, to be tossed away, to feel hopeless, and then share that because of the program, they now have hope, see a future, and feel like someone cares, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed with gratitude and amazement at what this program, and the animals, can do for the overall wellbeing of these kids.
When we started this program back in 2016, I wanted to make a difference in my community and for the children and animals who are so deserving. I am grateful for all I have learned, and for being allowed to be a small part of the lives of these kids and the animals who participate in this program.