Devereux Colorado’s animal-assisted therapy program teaches youth valuable life lessons
Youth at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Colorado who have experienced a significant amount of trauma in their young lives are finding furry, four-legged comfort – through the organization’s animal-assisted therapy program.
In 2009, Devereux Colorado teamed up with Denver Pet Partners, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the human-animal bond, to provide animal-assisted therapy to individuals with emotional, behavioral and cognitive differences. The program has been going strong ever since.
Three teams – made up of one human handler and one or two dogs – visit Devereux Colorado’s campus several times a week, interacting with youth in both individual and group settings. The teams are also utilized in Devereux Colorado’s community-based outpatient programs.
“We work closely with Denver Pet Partners’ handlers, who go through special training before coming to our campus, to ensure the individuals we serve – and the animals – are safe during all interactions,” said Devereux Colorado Director of Clinical Services Dr. Lisa Gaudia. “Our youth, many of whom have attachment issues, are really drawn to the dogs and are able to form impactful, therapeutic connections with them. Children and adolescents who do not want to sit down and talk one-on-one with an adult, because of their own past experiences, are able to better relax when there is a warm, furry, adorable animal in front of them to touch and take care of.”
A healing touch
Denver Pet Partners Handler Karen Davidson, and her 10-year-old dog Chewy, have been participating in the program since 2010, and currently visit the Devereux Colorado campus once a week.
Davidson, who calls the experience the most rewarding – and challenging – thing she’s ever done, teaches youth how to hold her 90-pound pup’s leash, what commands to use and how to walk him. Chewy does the rest.
“Chewy is very intuitive and can sense when a child is sad or upset,” said Davidson. “One day, when we were walking down a hallway, I saw a boy in tears. Chewy immediately pulled on the leash and laid down on the ground next to the child to comfort him. Dogs always seem to know the right thing to do. Staff members also look forward to our visits and make it a point to stop and get some love from Chewy whenever we’re on campus.”
Sit, stay, heel: Program benefits
Every interaction with the animals is turned into a teachable moment, during which individuals can learn valuable life lessons such as how to build trust, develop relationships and improve their socialization skills. These interactions teach youth about the dogs – and about themselves.
“By sitting and petting the dogs, or walking them around campus, our youth learn how to set boundaries and how to handle stressful situations,” explained Gaudia. “They might learn to tell their peers, ‘You can pet the dog on its head, but only for a short amount of time.’ This teaches them to recognize the dog’s boundaries and, in turn, recognize their own. During time with the animals, youth also learn how to better handle stress. If the dog is startled by something, we instruct our youth to listen to the animal’s heartbeat and feel its breathing. This teaches them about their own reactions and how to better cope in stressful situations.”
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