by Heddie Leger
We have been called upon to visit and work with youth that have less than fortunate home situations. Some are pregnant teens. Many, if not most have a great fear of dogs. There is a difference between fear and respect and we try to help them understand this. Our first meeting is without the dog(s). We bring in pictures, trading cards, photo albums and let them see the dogs doing things with people to encourage their curiosity. We provide Doggone Safe cards and other information regarding safe interactions with dogs. We teach the "Be A Tree" and just purely do relationship building exercises.
The next visit we bring the dog(s). We are very careful to bring only dogs with entirely neutral body language and a very calm temperament. Sometimes the youth are curious enough they will want to meet the dogs. Most of the time they will clutch their babies (ages 1-4) close to them and transmit their fear. This is where we feel most effective, as we help them understand that we understand their fear and how painful it can feel. We try to communicate to them how they are teaching their children to also be fearful. Most of the time they will agree that their fear comes from a bad experience, and that they would like their children not to live with the same fear and that they would like to learn to deal with and conquer their fear. This sometimes takes several visits.
The complex thing of these visits is that there are also toddlers (ages 1-4) in the room with us. We have multiple layers of ages. This is where the Doggone Crazy! board game comes in handy. Some of the youth will play the game while others engage the younger children, then they will switch. The cards, questions and game board are wonderfully interactive. With this grouping, often there are a few that will visit with the dog(s), and provide a positive role model of a safe interaction with dogs. Many of these youth have seen dog fights and have fears due to those experiences. The game really helps them learn on three facets, seeing the photos, participating in an interactive experience during the game by reading and answering questions, and then by seeing others interact with dogs in a positive manner. Even if they are too fearful to interact with the dogs directly they are learning positive interactions in a fun and entertaining manner from the game and from personal observations. Since there is not direct interaction with the dogs, they become more comfortable each time. The majority of the time by the end of a month, they are willing to at least brush the dog, even if they are not yet comfortable enough to touch the dog with their hand. We again reinforce the Be A Tree as many times as they need it.
Of all the visits we provide, these are some of the most intense, they are also the most rewarding.
Our other visits we provide range from hospice, to READing with the Dogs in school with at-risk children, to working with PT patients in a hospital or the psychiatric unit. Oh, and by the way, the game is equally as effective with children at a psychiatric unit. It engages them, even if they do have a short attention span. Sometimes we will continue the game through several visits.
Click here to learn more about Heddie
Click here to learn more about the Doggone Crazy! board game and Be a Tree teacher kit mentioned in the article.