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Paws, Pats, and Pets in Residential Therapy

I recently saw a short piece about a therapy dog who was retiring after eight years at a treatment facility.  I’m a dog person, and I love stories like this.  It’s a great reminder that what people work so hard to accomplish every day, dogs (and horses, farm animals, and even the office cat) can naturally provide priceless services in schools and programs every day.  While not every program includes the use of therapy animals, many do – and generally to the great benefit of clients and staff alike.  

 pets and residential therapy

Although school dogs and classroom cats are common, many programs are becoming increasingly intentional with their animal therapy.  A number of well-established programs feature dogs, puppies, horses, chickens, cows, llamas, and even rabbits.  Intentionally working with these animals gives clients opportunities to express care for something outside themselves, demonstrate responsibility, and realize that their actions have direct impacts on others.  Animals provide consistent and unfiltered feedback, responding to the emotional centeredness, joys, and sorrows of clients in treatment.  Animals are used to address attachment issues, build emotional regulation capacity, and develop executive functioning.  These interactions provide not only in-the-moment feedback for students, but are also often the starting point for more targeted therapeutic  work with clinicians who are helping process interactions as representative of larger patterns in a childs life.  The animals are everywhere, and they’re doing great work!


I had the great pleasure to work closely with one such dog.  While not an official card-carrying member of the “Service Animal” set, Everett was 100 lbs of furry, fuzzy, happy, relaxed doggy goodness – and a therapy dog if ever there was one.  As with all dogs, he was also a character. He sat in chairs (like metal folding chairs and desk chairs), and genuinely enjoyed wearing sunglasses on long car rides.  He was just a few months old when he took his first wilderness therapy trip, and he insisted on sleeping inside the sleeping bag until he was almost a year old.  He saw tantrums and triumphs, always deescalating one, while adding tail wagging to the other. As clients sat around campfires and tried to work through years of emotional challenges or deeply personal, and long-hidden, traumas they often pet or held him as they spoke, finding comfort in his presence and the support to carry on, in a way that only a dog can provide. Everett always made his way around the circle, so as not to leave anyone out. Later, at a boarding school, he became a permanent fixture in my classroom, and was a steady, supportive presence under desks, quietly resting his chin on a lap or leaning up against legs, as students struggled with the challenges of writing research papers or reading Kafka.   


Through over ten years in schools and programs, Everett was a steadfast trooper, a therapy dog through and through.  He liked kids, and they liked him.  He was big and mellow and kind.  He wasn’t afraid of their past, he didn’t judge them for their issues.  He didn’t care how well they could read.  He liked his ears tickled and his belly rubbed, and he would give undivided attention to anyone who would give it to him.  He was patient, forgave easily, carried no grudges, and seemed to bring out the best in students.  It was tough to be mad at Everett, and even tough to be mad at others, when that dog was around.  He never let anyone cry alone, no matter the reason.  


There’s no mystery that animals can, ironically, help make us all a little more human.  If you’re already an animal lover you know what a pet can mean to a child in need.  If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to benefit from a therapy animal, consider the possibilities and how informal, or formal, animal therapy could help your struggling teen.



About the Author

headshot of Jake WeldJake Weld holds a masters degree in education and has over twenty years of experience in traditional, LD, and therapeutic schools, adolescent and young adult programs, and conventional, wilderness, and residential settings. He has served as the Executive Director of a therapeutic boarding school, the Assistant Headmaster of a specialized LD boarding school, and as the Academic and Program Director of various schools and programs.  He is currently the Director of Admissions and Business Development for Mansfield Hall, a specialized college support program in Burlington, VT, and Madison, WI.