We bring Therapy Dogs into high school classrooms to teach social and communication skills, to raise resilience, and to lower stress and feelings of isolation.
Right now there is a great shortage of compassion on the planet. It seems that people are feeling very divided into "us" and "them" camps. This creates a sense of division, isolation, fear, and mistrust and leads to "defend my territory" or defend my group behavior.
Can Dogs Help Students Shift Perspectives on Themselves?
How do we reverse this toxic thinking in our culture? One way is to begin by inspiring high school students to change their perspectives. And we know lecturing doesn't work. In fact, words might fall short of the task of changing minds and behaviors. If we need more gentle kindness, more sweetness, it is time to call in the dogs!
Dogs are role models for non-judgment. They sense your essence, not your externals. They don't care about your grades, your clothes, your hair, your skin color. They respond to "your better self." If you are sweet to them, they will return that sweetness tenfold. A little loving touch is returned many times over with trust, acceptance, and a desire to connect.
The First Person Who Needs Compassion is YOU!
How do we begin to grow compassion? You can't ask someone who hates themself to love someone else. If their head is filled with self-judgment, they are not likely to be compassionate about others. So the first step to making a more compassionate classroom and a kinder world is to awaken kids to the high volume of their inner self-criticism. According to The National Science Foundation research, we have around 12,000 - 50,000 thoughts daily and 80% of them are negative. This means a lot of negative self-talk filling the brain. If we are under a barrage of critical mind chatter, is it any wonder that it spills out and we judge everyone around us?
All Dogs Are Good Dogs
The Human-Animal Connection is based on 33 principles that change perspectives on how we can live and relate to others. The first principle is that all dogs are good dogs. This doesn't mean that all behavior is desirable. And we don't have to live with "bad behavior" -- we can teach dogs what we want from them. But the idea is that a dog doing bad "things" is not a bad being. All behavior is an attempt to either feel safe or connected to something the dog desires.
This perspective helps take the judgment out of behavior and allows one to continue to lovingly support a dog who may be doing something you don't prefer. Helping the kids to understand this in dogs helps them to shift the judgment they may feel towards themselves. They come to recognize their innate goodness through this program. Seeing them all as good and saying Good Doggie puts us in the mindset of being able to see how it is true for people too. Good dog leads to feeling good person!
All Dogs and All People Are Unique
One exercise we do in class is we line up five very different-looking dogs, a 130-pound Bullmastiff named Shadow, next to a 30-pound Chihuahua mix named Sophia, next to a sleek greyhound named Mochi. As we line up different colors, sizes, shapes, and breed mixes, we are making an illustration. We ask the kids to notice what is the same -- and what is different in the dogs lined up before them. They look different, have different personalities, and have different ways of expressing themselves, they are clearly all unique. Then we ask, "What is the same about them?" -- and we get the obvious answer, "They are all dogs." They might notice how they all wag their tails when they anticipate petting, how they all love sitting for a treat, and how they all love to be loved. As they focus on what is the same and begin to notice more things that they have in common, we ask them how it feels to view them through the lens of "sameness" vs the lens of "difference." How does it make you feel when you are seeing sameness vs when you are seeing differences?
We point out that Sophia does not want to be Shadow. And Shadow is not trying to be Sophia. They accept themselves as the dog they are. They don't judge themselves because they are unique. And we remind kids that this self-acceptance is the dogs' superpower!
Many kids are struggling with both their desire to be the same and their desire to be different. We point out that sometimes we want to be the same as everyone else. Sometimes we want to be different. And that is good! We can choose when we want to be the same and when we want to be different. These choices make us who we are.
What We Focus on -- We get More of... Teaching Focus for Dogs
In Canines Teach Compassion students learn to teach our rescue dogs basic skills and tricks. The first one we teach is FOCUS! We do this by placing a treat on our forehead, between our eyes. The instant the dog focuses on our eyes, they get a reward, a yummy treat. Treats work wonders to reinforce desired behavior. Most dogs learn this in a few repetitions, and it gives the teens a sense of satisfaction to be able to communicate what they want to the dog and have the dog respond as asked. It builds their confidence that they can communicate clearly, and the dog is happy to indulge. For teaching to be effective, the kids learn the importance of patience, the precision of movement, a calm tone of voice, and the importance of patient persistence in dog training.
Teaching dogs to focus on you is a positive method of staying in connection. It helps "steer" the dog if they get distracted or too excited to be able to stay connected to you. One of the great reasons to use the focus tool is that without making the dog wrong, you simply give him or her another choice of behavior -- to sit for a treat. The dog gets to choose what to do, which keeps them feeling content and empowered. We show the teens that where a dog's eyes are is where his mind is. And we teach teens that they can begin to drive their own brains away from negative self-talk and toward positive intentions and actions by directing their mental focus. Choosing how to direct your focus gives you a sense of empowerment. When you direct your focus on what is good for you, it helps you feel more in control and less at the mercy of external events and the words of others.
Therapy Dogs "Read" Emotions in Humans
Dogs have some superior senses, such as the sense of hearing and smell that give them important information that humans may be unaware of. Additionally, Therapy Dogs have wonderful "human-reading instincts" or the ability to recognize human emotions. Just as in people, this range of perception varies from dog to dog, but trained Therapy Dogs are very good people readers. They have profound awareness about their emotional states, including the level of stress -- but also the love in a person's heart.
By watching a trained Therapy Dog's reactions to a person -- we can gain an understanding of what a person might be feeling at that moment, even if the person is unaware of their emotional state. And, as part of our Canines Teach Compassion program, we teach the students to recognize the levels of stress or excitement a dog may be feeling at any particular moment.
Using a ten-scale, with one being the calmest and most peaceful, where nothing bothers them -- up to a ten, which is a dangerous level of fear or anger, they begin to observe the changes in emotional activation or energy in the dog. This awareness of emotional states helps them to better recognize the rise and fall of emotional intensity in themselves.
Towards & Away - the Wisdom of Dogs
A dog who is healthy in body, mind, and spirit will move towards what is good and desired, and away from what is stressful or dangerous. For dogs who have been traumatized, this natural impulse or motion gets altered. They are afraid to move toward a friendly person or a treat. They get stuck or frozen, clinging to what they imagine is a safer position. After a long period of not feeling safe, they no longer gravitate to comfort, instead, they avoid any offers of kindness. When dogs are rescued from hoarding situations, for example, they will not come near a treat offered by a human. You have to toss the treat behind them, so they can move away from you in order to accept it.
When humans have been overriding their natural impulses to move towards what is good, and away from what is unsafe or ungood, then they can start losing connection with this vital sensory wisdom. People who have had a lot of trauma will often move away from a safe and healthy option -- and literally move toward danger or unsafety, partly because it is familiar. This often unconscious impulse can keep a person locked into negative behavior patterns. When you introduce a loving dog, this pattern is interrupted, often long enough to change choices.
In our Human-Animal Connection book, principle 21 is called "Towards & Away." Helping students to identify "Towards & Away" behavior -- or as we would call it communication - from healthy dogs, helps them to understand their own visceral responses in certain situations. Becoming aware of your natural "Towards & Away" sense helps you make better decisions about who and what to engage with because your intuition becomes loud and clear.
Connected Leadership Skills
Well-trained Therapy Dogs are very much in sync with their handlers. You can see this as they walk together on a loose leash, each tuned into the other's motions or intentions to change direction. This is like a lovely ballroom dance partnership, where both sides sense the slightest change of direction, and move accordingly. To show how it feels to both be in synch -- and how it feels to get out of sync, we have the students pair up, one person holding one end of the leash, and their partner playing the dog. We have them walk around, make direction changes, and sudden stops and turns. Students can see how harmonious it is when both sides of the leash are cooperating, paying attention to each other, and sensing the change. Conversely, when the leader just makes abrupt or jerky changes, it is very uncomfortable for the person playing the dog. This exercise builds awareness of the other person's experience, and how they are affected by either our connection or the lack of it.
Teaching is Learning
In Canines Teach Compassion we teach the students to train dogs with a few basic tricks and skills. This helps them understand that not all dogs learn at the same speed or in the same way. It takes patience to help a dog that doesn't at first understand what is being asked of them, but the satisfaction of helping a dog who is perhaps fearful to jump through a hoop, or go through a tunnel -- because of supportive, enthusiastic encouragement is very rewarding. It helps students understand that their own learning styles may be different, or they may need more time to understand new ideas in their classes. Seeing the dogs be reticent or cautious, or confused at first -- and then with persistent positive, step-by-step teaching -- they joyfully perform the task.
Very intelligent dogs, when faced with being asked to do something new, will often resist, or find a "better way" to outsmart the human. This always provokes joyful laughter, to see how the dog "thinks" -- and in the end, chooses to do the task as asked. Bailey, one very smart dog, when seeing the hula-hoop for the first time, and was encouraged to jump through, simply walked around to get the treat on the other side. This made everyone laugh, and also made the point that we all have different ways we learn -- or resist learning.
Dogs Are Stress Busters:
We teach students to recognize the emotional scale of 1-10 in themselves. We ask them to rate their stress level when they enter our class. Then, after interacting with the dogs, we ask them to rate their new level of stress. We often see 50-60% reduction of stress in just one hour of interacting with loving Therapy Dogs.
Healing Beyond Words
Sometimes we want to talk about our troubles, sometimes words are just not the pathway we choose. For students who are very introverted or private, sometimes they need another way to connect. Dogs offer a love and healing that is beyond words. Sometimes what you need is a fun, furry cuddle to brighten your mood and your day. And giving love is as healing as receiving. For all of these reasons and more, Therapy Dogs can be our partners in healing.
Our new book, The Human-Animal Connection - Deepening Relationships with Animals and Ourselves will be available February, 2023. Join our free newsletter for advance ordering information.
Genie Joseph, PhD
The Human-Animal Connection