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Healing paws

By MARTIN HINTZ

 

A 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.

Bentley’s 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 program.

Calming the 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.

"It’s 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.

The Wisconsin 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 reflections.

According to 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.

The youngsters 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.

Yep, that’s all in a dog’s life.

What the children say: The success of these programs is best heard through the youngsters’ own voices.

Of Bentley, "He helps us talk about our feelings, like when he got taken away from his mom and me having to run away from my mom." – 11-year-old

"In the PAL program, I learned a lot, even outside of taking care of animals. I learned how to train dogs and treat them with the respect they deserve. I even learned to be kind with people." – Angela, 11

"As I was growing up, I always wanted to kick a dog or throw things at animals. When I was in PAL, I remember holding and feeding a little helpless bird and it made me want to do all I could to help him survive." – Ermamarie, 16

"This is the time of my life where I was most proud of myself. We had to learn how to help the dog love people because some of the animals had been abused. I’m going to sign up again this summer because I like dogs and I don’t like dogs to get hurt." – Dominick, 12