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Therapy Dogs Provide Comfort and Camaraderie to Struggling Teens

By Jess Clarke

Whether it’s a dog that dances, plays ball, or gives a high five or a canine that licks away a child’s tears, students at SUWS Seasons, a therapeutic wilderness program outside Old Fort, N.C., have the opportunity to bond with animals regularly.

Through the nonprofit Paws with a Purpose in nearby Asheville, the certified therapy dogs are used for play, cheering up, and counseling purposes for students ages 10 to 13 at Seasons, part of SUWS of the Carolinas, a well-known wilderness program for teens.

Every other week, volunteers from the organization take one or two dogs – Labrador and Golden Retrievers, Bassett Hounds, German Shepherds, and other breeds – to Seasons, where therapists oversee an “introduction circle” at which students discuss their relationships with pets, how an animal has helped them, or their favorite breed of dog. Some students recall times when they’ve cried at home, and their dog or cat has comforted them.

The volunteers also teach students about the dogs, which kids may pet and cuddle with. If a dog knows tricks, students can use treats and play with the animals. “I think these dogs really help our students. A lot of students are unable to focus, and petting the dog while they’re talking helps them get centered and grounded. Even kids who are oppositional or defiant or having difficulty with peer relationships still react positively to the dogs,” Seasons therapist Kelly Moore says. “I’ve seen some students who just don’t want to let go of the dogs at all.”

Seasons’ approach to dog therapy, or canine therapy, is different from other wilderness programs, most of which take dogs into the woods with kids. At Seasons, students can interact with the dogs one on one, which is an enlightening method for staff.

“A therapy dog can open kids up in ways that a therapist could not, and the therapist can see that and use that avenue as a way in to connect with the student,” says Shawn Farrell, executive director of SUWS of the Carolinas. “The natural affinity of kids and their connections with animals is important. For kids, it’s easier for them to relate to a strange animal than to a strange person.”

SUWS of Idaho, a therapeutic wilderness program based in Shoshone, uses llamas for a similar purpose.

The dogs’ unconditional love can help students, particularly those who have been abused or neglected, learn to build trust and self-esteem. “A good number of our kids have been judged by their peers at home and struggle to make friends,” Farrell says. “The dog doesn’t care about any of that. The dog’s going to come over and show them affection and give them attention just for being there. A dog doesn’t show judgment.”

The lack of judgment can free up students and draw them out. “I’ve seen kids who have been having a meltdown and don’t want to interact with anybody, and it happens to be when Paws for a Purpose comes, and it turns their day around,” Moore says. “They become more compliant, start interacting with their peers, and start responding to the staff more. I think it’s an amazing asset to our program.”
Jess Clarke is a freelance writer and editor based in Asheville, N.C.

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