Therapeutic Canine Support at First Light Wilderness
First Light Wilderness Therapy employs two therapeutic canines, Rush and Springer, who live with the student groups in the woods and provide a critical clinical service to students during their time in treatment. Rush and Springer are almost 2-year-old golden retrievers, a breed that is specifically selected for this role, due to their ability to thrive in a pack-bonded living situation. These canines joined First Light in February 2021, and have participated in ongoing training throughout their time with the program in order to ensure that their role and participation are aligned with First Light’s commitment to a model focused on Commitment, Attunement, Security and Attachment (CASA).
While it would seem intuitive to many people that animal-assisted therapy has inherent benefits, it is important to note that current research on the actual benefits of animal-assisted therapies identifies integrated canine therapy in the treatment of childhood trauma. As a program focused on attachment and trauma, First Light Wilderness utilizes its therapeutic canines for safe touch, cuddles, affection, comfort and unconditional acceptance. As importantly, the canines in the program are also handled on a daily basis by students, which allows students to experience their direct impact on the connection-break-repair aspects of relationship. This assists in building empathy and understanding, and subsequently allows students to transfer these experiences to their understanding of attachment in human-to-human relationships. For adopted students or those who experience issues with attachment, the child-canine relationship often brings awareness of what parental love looks like, a process known as “transferable attachment.” In the group milieu, students can observe that their level of emotion regulation is mirrored by the group’s canine, which provides the opportunity to actively practice co-regulation, a skill that is taught and measured as a desired outcome of the treatment process.
Rush works specifically in Wayah and Etowah, our identified-female student groups, and is named after the first U.S. gold rush, which took place in Dahlonega, Georgia in 1829. Springer works with Yonah, our identified-male student group, and is named after Springer Mountain, a location in First Light’s field area which is the start of the famous Appalachian Trail. Each canine has its own unique personality, strengths and skills, as well as its own tent. Students at First Light take turns handling their group canine based on their readiness, interest and ability to safely manage this caretaking in their therapeutic process.
As the First Light Wilderness program grows, it is expected that additional canines will join the team. The program’s canines are treated with the same understanding of the CASA model of treatment and are taken out of the field regularly for care and rest as needed. The core lesson involved in utilizing canines as part of the treatment process is that traditional talk therapy can be powerfully supplemented by the experience of vulnerability that takes place in the context of a relationship with a safe, loving animal.
First Light Wilderness Therapy provides high-impact, evidence-based outdoor behavioral healthcare for teens ages 12-18 and is based out of Dahlonega, Georgia. Utilizing a nomadic wilderness model, First Light Wilderness focuses on treating issues related to early developmental trauma, adoption and attachment, as well as depression, anxiety and co-occurring addiction. First Light Wilderness Therapy’s goal for every student is to achieve meaningful change by creating an environment of adventure where joy is rediscovered and nurtured, where adventure leads to self-discovery, and where relationships heal and grow. To learn more about First Light, visit www.firstlightwilderness.com.