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Healing Children While Helping Dogs

January 30, 2019  |  Comments Off on Healing Children While Helping Dogs

How Alexander’s Bark and Heal program is innovating pet therapy to heal children affected by trauma

“The youth, in general, have had a natural instinct to want to care for the dogs. They have experienced an empathic response, unlike that with their peers.” – Lori Douglas, Program Director of the Bark and Heal program at Alexander Youth Network.

Through Bark and Heal, children in our residential or day treatment programs provide skill training to rescue dogs from FurBabies Animal Rescue. Since the program’s launch in January 2018, there have been 4 graduating classes with 17 youth-canine pairs. Each child in the program is prescribed the skills training as a part of their Patient-Centered Plan.

Bark and Heal training classIt is a bonding experience for child and dog.

In 1991, Lori Douglas dreamt of how she could use her social work degree to change the lives of children who have experienced trauma.

Initially, Lori learned about a program that paired aggressive men with aggressive dogs for companion training. She knew she could tailor the program for children to teach similar coping mechanisms, empathy, and compassion.

As a part of the Alexander Youth Network Leadership Institute, Lori receiving mentoring from Brennan Graham to start Bark and Heal. Charlotte local Bill Allen offered financial support to start the pilot program in 2018.

“We adopted the curriculum from the ‘A New Leash on Life’ program that (FurBabies) already runs through the NC Correctional Facilities,” said Daryl Wagner, Owner of FurBabies Animal Rescue. Partnering with Daryl has allowed Lori to adapt the program to meet the needs of the kids at Alexander, as well as become an expert on canine training as therapy.

There is a story behind every child and dog pairing.

For many children at Alexander, this may be the first time they are able to connect or bond with another being.

“Many of the kids see themselves in the behaviors of the dogs,” Lori said. This relationship between canine and child is what sets Bark and Heal apart from other pet therapy programs.

volunteers assist kids and dogs during Bark and Heal sessions

Through the bond forged between trainer and dog, we have seen dramatic changes in behavior from the kids in the program:

  • One youth and canine pair, both with a history of running away, gained trust and positive reinforcement from spending time with each other. The dog learned to not run away.  Within a week, the child stopped running as well.
  • A girl with a history of depression and self-harm found hope in the sessions with her dog. The three hours a week they spent together was motivation for her to stop cutting.
  • Kids have gained confidence to make friends with peers and engage in the classroom.

Positive change in the program and in treatment.

Staff at Alexander have attributed the program to helping many of their kids develop positive relationships with their peers and clinical staff.

Children are transferring skills from the canine training sessions to their own lives, whether in the classroom, home, or community.

In addition, the structured classes reinforce skills of healthy detachment. All of the dogs in the program are adopted out over the 8-week program. Implementing this program on campus has given some children in the program a chance to succeed for the first time.

The next Bark and Heal course will start at Beacon Hall Day Treatment in January 2019. It will be the first of 12 classes offered as a therapeutic activity for kids at Alexander this year.

To learn more about the history of the program and offerings at Alexander, please visit the program webpage.


Written by Emily Gordon.

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