Updated: Mar 30
We select shelter dogs and train them to become certified therapy dogs. They bring joy and comfort to everyone they meet. Our new program for high school students is called Canines Teach Compassion.
High school students are experiencing high levels of stress, and this is affecting their academic performance. In our current class, we are working with kids who have lost a family member to Covid. So the fact that these dogs can touch their hearts and deliver love without the need for words is priceless. Even kids who don't want to talk, open up to the sweet dogs.
Our program combines interacting with dogs with learning social skills and self-soothing resilience methods. We use several methods to evaluate stress levels before and after interacting with the dogs during our one-hour class. After students get to interact with our dogs, we see a significant reduction in stress levels. We have also begun testing with HeartMath computer evaluation of Heart Rate Variability which tests the increase of parasympathetic nervous system response (reduction of stress reactions.)
In my opinion, the world needs more compassion - now more than ever. Starting with high school students, Therapy Animals help to create a culture of compassion. But it all starts with self-compassion. Because if you are judging yourself harshly, you are not going to have the bandwidth to be kind to others. And high school kids are often their own worst enemies when it comes to self-criticism. But the dogs don't judge. They don't care what you look like, how you talk, what you wear. They just want to love and be loved in return.
Emotions are contagious. Hate is contagious. And so is love. So is empathy. So why not spread good feelings? In our class, we talk about how all dogs are good dogs -- and all behavior is an attempt to feel safe and connected. By feeling the love the dogs share, the students' hearts soften.
Becoming aware that others are experiencing something other than what we are, that they may be suffering, and there is some kind of caring action we can take to alleviate that suffering, will surely lead to a kinder world. And the dogs lead the way -- more than words could ever do.
Acts of compassion change both the giver and receiver and cultivate a culture of empathy. Our therapy dogs model kindness and acceptance because they love all the kids without judgment. They don’t care how the students look; they look at their essence. The dogs lovingly connect with the students and exude joy because they recognize the students are good people. They are treated kindly by the students and the dogs respond with kindness in return.
Our program begins with this teaching point: This is a Good Doggie and because you are loving to this animal, you are a Good Person too. This is a foundational point because before we can expect kids to behave compassionately toward others, kids need to learn to be kind to themselves. Young teens are often very self-critical, comparing themselves unrealistically to those they admire. Canines Teach Compassion offers tools to intervene in the students’ negative self-talk and helps quiet their inner critic. You have to be kind to yourself before you have a reservoir of compassion for others.
In one session, we line up five very different dog breeds in a range of sizes – a black Labrador, a white chihuahua mix, an English bullmastiff, a standard poodle, and a sheepdog. We ask the teens to make a list of what the dogs have in common, and what is different about each one. We point out that little Sophia (the chihuahua mix) is not trying to be Shadow (the bullmastiff), nor is Shadow trying to be Sophia. Shadow and Sophia are role models for accepting themselves as who they are. We also discuss that sometimes we want to feel like we are the same as others -- and sometimes we want to be different -- and both experiences are good.
Another exercise helps the students experience the dynamics of leading and being led on a leash. With one teen on each end of the leash, they walk together around the obstacles in the room to experience what it feels like to be led. They get to experience the difference between the ease of being in sync with each other and the disruptive feelings when the leader yanks on the leash, disregarding the other person’s rhythm, timing, or desire.
We also teach them the neutral observation of body language and how to distinguish between the dog’s come towards me signal, and a please don’t touch me, signal. We then help them relate this experience to the way they feel when they don’t people want to come too close. Teens can experience much more success in social situations if they are correctly reading non-verbal communication signals from peers. Success in social interactions is a strong predictor of resilience and leads to better academic outcomes.
We are very excited about the response of students to Canines Teach Compassion. Below are a few comments from students.
"I like this program a lot. I think it really helps kids who might be feeling bad. Before I started this program with the dogs I was at a loss with life. But being around the dogs made me feel like maybe I’m not so lost and everything might be okay."
"Canines Teach Compassion is amazing. It is very fun and calming. My favorite part is getting to pet the dogs. I like feeling the calm energy of the dogs."
"I really love dog therapy because it is mentally relieving without having to actually speak out loud. Sometimes stories flow freely from being comfortable, other times it's good just to have a dog sense your stress. It allows for a break in the long day. This year especially, it has added a break in senior year, so I enjoy it a lot."
"I love being with the dogs because they don't judge you. They just want to love you for who you really are."
If you have a dog that you think might be a candidate for therapy dog work, we are always looking for more dogs, as the demand for this service is very high. And of course, we always greatly appreciate your donations to keep the program going and growing.
Here is a short video about our program at Rincon High School in Tucson, Arizona, USA.
Genie Joseph, PhD
The Human-Animal Connection