vigorously wagging tail is an important tool. It’s also the secret
behind — so to speak — being a successful dog. Just ask Bentley, a
2-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog with a purpose.
friendly demeanor brings results in his work with emotionally
disturbed boys at St. Aemilian-Lakeside. All the kids are victims of
abuse and neglect, with Bentley on hand (or paw, as it were) to help
them express themselves and turn around their lives.
The program was
launched in 2010 with the assistance of Health Heelers, a service
founded by Laura Hey, who helped set up the St. Aemilian-Lakeside
curriculum. The therapy sessions run one night a week for eight weeks,
involving youngsters in the facility’s residential treatment
boys, increasing compassion and their understanding of their own
feelings and expanding their ability to work as a team are among the
program’s goals. "Even if a child can connect with a dog in a
little way, it can bring huge benefits," says Hey.
In an initial
session, Bentley’s background is shared with the kids, including his
"scariest experience." That entailed leaving his litter,
flying on a plane, coming into a new home and meeting three
stepbrothers. Under the watch of such therapists as Kathleen Tompkins,
Bentley’s growing up tale sparks discussion among the boys who
relate to many of these traumatic experiences. They then take turns
sharing their own scary memories.
absolutely amazing. He’s the star," says Bentley’s
owner/handler Cheryl Pabich. "He’s very sensitive; he will lick
them and comfort them as they tell their stories." Pabich and pal
Bentley are officially called a therapy dog team, registered through
the Delta Society. This organization works to improve human health
through use of therapy animals.
The boys often
bring up their Bentley experiences in family sessions, relating to
their parents that they don’t feel so alone after hearing the other
boys’ hard stories. "It is just so safe to tell their families
about Bentley, show off his pictures and talk about him," says
therapist Tompkins. She readily admits that she’s "sold
on" therapy dogs after doing four of the eight-week rounds with
Bentley in groups and with individuals.
Humane Society also uses animals to help youngsters find themselves.
Its PAL program, a nationally recognized empathy-building activity,
was developed in 1993. Teachers and social workers nominate at-risk
youngsters to participate in the program, which includes three PAL
sessions each summer. Each session lasts two weeks, meeting Monday
through Friday for three hours each day. WHS provides daily bussing to
and from the program, nutritional snacks, a T-shirt identifying them
as a PAL participant and a journal where they can transcribe their
Angela Speed, WHS’ director of development and community relations,
PAL provides participants with a variety of positive experiences
working with animals and dealing cooperatively with a human partner.
"Under the supervision of WHS experts, each child works in a team
of two to train a shelter dog to become a well-mannered companion for
an adopting family," she explains.
also care for injured birds in the wildlife nursery and socialize and
groom cats to help them gain experience in responsibility, teamwork
and caring for others. Speed relates that through PAL, participants
develop self-esteem and feel the joy of achievement. They learn to
nurture, cooperate and socialize, all of which contribute to building
empathy, says Speed. She adds that the kids also learn the value of
hard work, compassion and cooperation.
all in a dog’s life.