Youth Work’s Greatest Tails

Print More

Staffers at the Chaddock residential program for troubled youth in Quincy, Ill., were walking around campus one day last year when they came across a young teenage girl having a meltdown outside a classroom. “She was kicking the walls and crying,” recalls therapist Kathy Palmer. This girl would routinely get upset, Palmer says, and “it would take her all afternoon before she would de-escalate.”

Palmer happened to have on hand a secret de-escalation tool: a puppy.

“Would you like to pet the puppy?” Palmer recalls asking the girl. “She immediately calmed down.”

“She pet the puppy for about five minutes,” remembers Katrina Brown, Chaddock’s associate director of residential services. “Then she said, ‘OK, I’m ready to go back to class.’ Her total mood had changed.”

For Palmer and Brown, that change reconfirmed the power of animals in youth work. While the scene produced a short-term payoff in calming the girl, Chaddock recently became one of numerous youth-serving agencies around the country that employ a more sophisticated animal program to help engineer long-term changes in youths’ behavior and attitudes.

Can an animal change the life of a kid who’s been abused, locked up, kicked out of school or passed around among foster homes? A lot of youth workers think so.

At a juvenile detention center in Sonoma County, Calif., boys groom, feed and train service dogs to help physically impaired people with their daily chores. At the Idaho Youth Ranch in Rupert, Idaho, abused, neglected and delinquent youth in a 4-H program train pigs to show at the county fair. At a VisionQuest ranch in Yeehaw Junction, Fla., adjudicated girls train young horses to be ridden. At the Irving N. Berlin Child Development Center in Los Lunas, N.M., adopted kids with severe emotional problems show goats they’ve cared for and trained in a local competition.

Proponents say working with animals increases a youth’s self-esteem and sense of accomplishment; instills a work ethic and sense of responsibility; builds trust and empathy; and teaches anger control, communication skills and how to meet objectives without using force.

That doesn’t mean every agency should start building kennels. For one thing, “it’s an expensive program,” says Bonita Bergin, founder and CEO of the Assistance Dog Institute, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based school that teaches youths and adults how to train animals. And although some youth agencies have been using animals for decades, there appears to be no scientific research on the long-term impacts.

“The field is just starting to realize the need for documentation,” says Palmer at Chaddock, with agencies taking steps toward trying to measure results. For people like Palmer and Bergin, the eyewitness evidence is overwhelming.
Seeing Is Believing

“They were probably the meanest girls I’ve ever seen in my life.”

So recalls 70-something wrangler Juan Pirtle about a group he worked with at VisionQuest’s residential program for adjudicated youth in Yeehaw Junction. “It’s like the cartoon of the cat with its legs spread out and its hair standing up and its claws out. That’s the way those girls struck me.”

The girls were assigned to work with horses in a “round pen.” That’s a ring, about 60 feet in diameter, where handlers begin to calm and train horses. “Round penning,” as it’s called, includes guiding a horse on a rope in circles, teaching him to come to and follow the trainer, and training him to accept a saddle and, eventually, a rider. At VisionQuest, as with many equestrian programs, each youth is assigned a specific animal to care for and train.

That assignment seems to have a big impact. It is the first time many of these kids have been handed such a significant responsibility. Because the animal is helpless without them – and perhaps because it is not an annoying parent or sibling – the kids tend to rise to the occasion.

When “the worst of the bunch” of difficult girls at VisionQuest was awakened one Sunday morning to take care of her horse, Pirtle says, she snapped, “This is my day off.” Confronted with the reality that her horse would get no care without her, she got up and did her job. “From then on, I had no problem with her,” he says.

At the end of the eight-week course, the girls were polite, responsible and proud, all having successfully trained their horses. The change in their demeanor shocked the graduation guests. “I can’t explain what happened,” Pirtle says. “But it did work, and it does work.”

Bergin, a pioneer in training dogs to help people with physical impairments, has seen much the same impact with canines. Her Assistance Dog Institute has about 25 affiliated programs around the country, and runs trainer education programs for both adults and teens near its home base in California.

That includes a program at the Sierra Youth Center, a minimum security facility run by Sonoma County. Five days a week, the institute brings dogs to the center, where boys learn and practice training dogs to do such things as pull wheelchairs and turn on lights. The training must be good enough for the dogs to be adopted out to people in need.

The institute also runs a program at a “continuation high school,” an alternative school for youths who have gotten into trouble for drug involvement or other harmful behavior.

The first benefit that many people see for kids working with dogs is the unconditional love they receive. Bergin says the dogs fulfill the “love and belongingness” needs of the youth, many of whom “haven’t had much love in their lives. .... You don’t get these [needs] met by your guards in juvenile hall.”

When a person trains a dog, she says, “for the dog, you are it. It is absolutely in love with you.”

For that kind of love, you could just give each kid a pet. To bring about lasting, positive changes in the youth, say those who conduct animal work, they have to go further. The first step is caring for animals, which has long been part of the routine for youth at 4-H programs, many camps and at rural programs such as Green Chimneys Farm and Wildlife Conservation Center in Brewster, N.Y., which features 380 animals.

The big step however, is teaching the youth to train the animals. “These kids are now successful at training dogs,” Bergin notes. “They are getting this sense of accomplishment.”

Giving kids that sense of accomplishment was one reason behind a change in the animal program at Chaddock, whose Quincy campus houses forty 12- to 18-year-olds referred by child welfare, juvenile corrections and the state education department, along with a few youth sent by their families. Until this year, Chaddock simply took kids to a shelter to care for and play with animals. Many agencies offer their youth short visits with animals, and that probably does the kids some temporary good.

But Palmer, a trainer of service dogs, believes that the real, long-term benefits come from using animals to teach skills and integrating the animal experiences with therapy. Palmer takes dogs to campus every day for both “Yappy Hour” – where kids just play with the canines – and a new program where kids train the animals to be service dogs.

Chaddock’s Brown notes that the foster youth seem to identify with animals that have no homes and are waiting to be placed. She notes that the first dog Palmer brought was an abandoned Sheltie that was “found in a drainpipe, covered with mud, half-starved and almost frozen.” His new name is Second Chance.

Training a dog, Palmer says, requires a youth to employ important interpersonal skills, such as trying to get your way without using force or losing your temper. She recalls one boy who “had abhorrent social skills. He had no boundaries. A real attention-seeker.”

“The dog he was working with did not like him,” she says. “He couldn’t figure out why. It was a great opportunity to talk about how to approach the dog a little differently, with a softer tone of voice.” Most importantly, she says, “He learned to take some of those skills that he learned with the dog and apply them to people.”

Palmer stresses that the dog training is connected to the kids’ therapy. For instance, she says, some abused kids will talk out issues with the dogs that they haven’t discussed with people – even though a youth worker is standing right there when they talk to the dogs. “You’ll find them conveying some of the things that happened to them to the dog,” Palmer says. “It’s like they want you to know, but they have a hard time telling you directly.”

That’s not uncommon. In one survey that asked children who they would go to to discuss a problem, “children regularly nominated a pet,” according to an analysis published in 1995 titled, “The Role of Pets in Enhancing Human Well-Being: Effects on Child Development.” Those who work with animals at youth agencies say the animal doesn’t have to be a pet. “A lot of conversations happen with the horses,” says VisionQuest founder Bob Burton. “They’ll stand out there for an hour [talking] with their animal.”

At the Idaho Youth Ranch, workers point out that kids with anger management problems must learn to control their emotions in order to get control of the horses. Horse Program Manager Rodney King, who breeds and shows his own horses, remembers one “pretty hard core” kid who “was always getting into fights.” At the urging of another boy, King “relented” and let the angry kid try to work with a horse in the round pen.

“We had this 2-year-old – a big, wild thing,” King says. “The horse was haltered. This kid grabbed a-hold of the rope, the horse took off, yanked him off his feet and drug him across the pen. … Most of the kids, the colt takes off and they let go of the rope.”

When the colt stopped, King says, “this kid – who was famous for getting mad and being totally out of control – he jumped up and started sweet-talking this horse. He pet this colt and calmed him down. I thought, ‘You know, there’s hope for this kid.’ I hired him that day. He became really successful working with horses.”

When the boy left the ranch last winter, he bought one of the horses and took it to his family’s farm.

King thinks the talk about boosting kids’ self-esteem is often “overdone,” but says he’s seen the impact on kids training horses. “Anytime you set up a situation where it’s difficult to do, but they succeed, I think it really does help their self-esteem,” he says.
That all sounds logical. But is there evidence to confirm what these youth workers believe is happening? And do the youth apply what they learn to their relationships with people after they leave the programs?

Research Needed

Anyone who’s had a pet knows that people get something out of it. There is lots of literature about the benefits of animal companionship for people of all ages. For children, various studies have shown that under certain circumstances, owning or caring for a pet can improve self-esteem, verbal skills and empathy, as well as provide the security of unconditional love.

“It becomes clear that pets can have positive influences on certain aspects of child development,” says “The Role of Pets” analysis. But “causal relationships are difficult to prove.” What’s more, research shows that the impact of a pet is affected by numerous factors, including the age of the child and the dynamics of the household.

Perhaps most importantly, raising a pet for years starting in early childhood is far different from having a teenager work with an animal during a limited, involuntary stay in a youth program. The VisionQuest program in Florida, for instance, lasts eight weeks.

“I don’t feel that we have them long enough,” Pirtle says.

Beyond pets, there are limited studies about the value of animals helping people with particular emotional needs, such as cancer patients, people in retirement homes, and people recovering from emotional losses or severe injuries. Horses are used in therapy with kids who have cerebral palsy, but that’s primarily physical therapy, notes Dr. Allan Hamilton, a neurosurgeon who has used animals to work with both patients and medical students at the University of Arizona.

No scientific data appears to be available on the long-term impact of animals in youth programs on the behavior of troubled youth. The closest appears to be a study from Bergin’s Assistance Dog Institute, which says that boys in the juvenile detention center showed an average increase in self-esteem of 40 percent over four to six months (as measured on a self-concept scale). A study at a middle school for emotionally dysfunctional youth in Florida “indicated” a 73 percent decrease in absenteeism for kids in the institute’s dog class and a 32 percent rise in grades, the institute says.

What those findings might show, however, is that kids perk up when they have a dog. What happens when the youth leave the programs?

“There needs to be more research,” says Dr. Hamilton. “I don’t know that there’s a lot of high-quality, valid research that says if you do these programs, you’re going to see solid, value-added results.”

VisionQuest is trying to move in that direction. It is creating a system to track youth in its programs both during and after their participation, in hopes of measuring impacts in specific areas. “We’ve always known it was successful,” says Harold Arant, VisionQuest’s state director in Florida. “I don’t know that we’ve said why is it successful and what exactly did the kids get out of it? Did it affect their relationship with their mother or their father? Did it help in relapse prevention?”

“It’s difficult,” he says. “We have to identify six things” to measure. “Then you have to measure it against 5,000 other things during the day.”

At a time when funders and program managers preach the importance of measuring results, this is a promising area of youth work that cries out for scientific evaluation. While Burton at VisionQuest believes the approach works, he adds, “We know we’ve gotta show it, not just say it.”

The Flip Side: Animal Abuse by Youth

The abuse of animals by youth is considered a powerful early indicator of violent behavior toward people and property.

“Animal abuse has received insufficient attention … as one of a number of ‘red flags,’ warning signs or sentinel behaviors that could help identify youth at risk for perpetrating interpersonal violence … and youth who have themselves been victimized,” noted the September 2001 Juvenile Justice Bulletin, published by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Various studies have linked animal cruelty to conduct disorder and crime. “Cruelty to animals may be one of the first [conduct disorder] symptoms to appear in young children,” wrote bulletin author Frank R. Ascione, a psychology professor at Utah State University.

In one study, researchers in Massachusetts looked at the criminal records of 153 people who had been prosecuted for intentional physical cruelty to animals, and compared them with the criminal records of people from the same neighborhoods with no record of such cruelty. The animal abusers were significantly more likely to have been arrested as adults for other crimes in all four categories examined: violent, property, drug and disorder. (“The Relationship of Animal Abuse to Violence and other Forms of Antisocial Behavior,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Vol. 14, 1999.)

Should such youth be kept out of programs in which they would interact with animals? Several program managers said no. A youth worker usually supervises the youth as they work with animals. Youths who have abused animals might be watched extra carefully.

“We don’t have any client working with a dog unsupervised,” says Kathy Palmer, who started the dog program at the Chaddock residential program in Illinois.

At VisionQuest, wrangler Juan Pirtle has banned a few youth from animal handling because of abuse, including one who threw rocks at his horse. Pirtle notes that the boy “had been horribly abused by someone in his family. … He’d ride a horse and get mad; he’d double up his fist and act like he was gonna hit the horse in the face.”

Abuse of animals is a common sign that a youth has been abused. For instance, studies have shown that children who have been sexually abused are significantly more likely to abuse animals than those who have not. (“Child Sexual Behavior Inventory,” Psychological Assessment, Vol. 4, 1992.)

Those who use animals in youth work say they realize that a youth’s history of animal abuse is a sign of that youth’s own troubles; they try to use the animals to help the youth grapple with what’s been done to him and what he’s done to others.

Palmer recalls working with a boy who had burned a dog alive before arriving at Chaddock. The staff would take the boy and a dog for walks. “We were teaching him the appropriate way to approach a dog and handle it,” Palmer says. “How do you think the dog’s feeling now? Maybe working on stories from the dog’s point of view, like, ‘Here’s a dog hiding out when his mom and dad are fighting.’ Working on empathetic skills.

“He started to get a real attachment to the dog.” One day, “he broke down and started crying and apologizing to [the dog] for what he’d done to the other dog.”

Animal-Assisted Youth Work: Some Drawbacks

Sure, it sounds nice for a youth agency to provide animals for kids to play with and train. But how many agencies can house and care for dogs on site, much less horses?

“It’s an expensive program,” says Bonita Bergin, CEO of the Assistance Dog Institute. “The dogs have to be housed and fed, the kennels cleaned.” There’s also the cost of staff training and time.

It’s not uncommon, Bergin says, for such programs to start up “and disappear, because they don’t get funding.”

It is also common, though, for programs like Bergin’s to be funded through contracts with government agencies, such as juvenile justice, child welfare and education agencies, providing a bit more stability.

The dogs don’t have to be kept on site, which cuts down on costs. In Illinois, the dogs that are brought to Chaddock each day are cared for at night by adults who keep them at their homes. Chaddock plans to build a kennel to keep dogs on site, but getting approval for that “can be controversial” within a youth-serving agency, says Kathy Palmer, who runs the dog program there.

While most of the staff supported the idea, she says, several brought up concerns: “There are allergies. … There were people concerned that the kids would hurt the dogs. Other people thought they would be barking” all night.

Horses, unlike dogs, can’t just jump into a car for a ride to a youth program. They typically must be kept on site. That takes a lot of land and money, for both staff and supplies.

VisionQuest often gets 5-year-old horses for about $900, says founder Bob Burton. They can last in the program for a decade or more. He estimates that food and grain cost about $4 a day, while other costs – such as medical care, shoeing and bedding – come to about $200 a year per horse.

Plus, “the expense of the insurance is dramatic,” he says. After all, “you can get in trouble with a horse if he takes off on you and runs into a fence.”

No wonder many agencies opt for smaller creatures, such as rabbits, that require less space and maintenance. “Any animal can be a therapy animal,” says Palmer.

At Chaddock, one staffer brought in a pair of fish. “One of them killed the other one,” Palmer recalls. “We had some therapy opportunities there.”


Bonita Bergin, CEO
Assistance Dog Institute
1215 Sebastopol Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95407
(707) 545-3647

Katrina Brown
205 South 24th St.
Quincy, IL 62301
(217) 222-0034

Delta Society
580 Naches Ave. SW, Suite 101
Renton, WA 98055-2297
(425) 226-7357

Mike Jones, President
Idaho Youth Ranch
7025 Emerald St.
Boise, ID 83704
(208) 377-2613

Beth Rosica
Vision Quest
940 Ryan Blvd.
Coatesville, PA 19320
(610) 486-2280