Canine Therapy

You could say that Canine Companion Therapy was something that I was born into. From my earliest ages, I always had a dog that was like one of my best friends: Spot, a border collie; Princess, an English setter; Bobo, a rat terrier; Fred, the greatest dog of all time and who I call the Father of Capstone Canine Companion Therapy, a Jack Russell mostly; Princess, a black Lab who was just simply family for 11 years when our four children were young; Samson, a German shepherd; Tag, a truly magical German shepherd; and now Bear, a giant schnauzer whom I mostly call Bear-Bear. He may end up being the best one of all. That’s 63 years of special dogs, and each one was special and seemed to be made for a special mission with me during a challenging time in life.

In the nineties, as I was developing what I now call the Core-Systems Model, I did a lot of work in my private outpatient practice with sexual abuse survivors, mostly women. One of the necessities for doing this work is a support system for the client when not in session. If a client had friends and family who supported them in their work, they rarely needed any more support. But if a client didn’t have that support system, it was difficult to do the work and sometimes just downright dangerous. With clients who had been seductively abused but had no good support group, I suggested that they get a Labrador retriever, sometimes a golden retriever. Love, loyalty and trustworthiness were absent in the abuse experience and were exactly the support that they needed as they did the trauma work. Many could not make this happen, but many did. And the difference was significant.

canine therapy

If a client had been forcibly abused, the nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive memories would prevent them from healthy sleep (little to no REM cycles), and therapy would often crash. In these cases, I asked them to get a German shepherd or another protective, loving, loyal and trustworthy breed. The clients who did this experienced remarkable change, mainly because of the sleep.

I knew from my experiences with dogs and from the above stories with clients that if God ever saw fit to bless my life with a Capstone, that we were going to do the same canine therapy as in my private practice, Canine Companion Therapy.

Most of the time we get the resident’s first choice in gender and color (black, yellow or chocolate), and we have the puppy waiting on them when they arrive at Capstone for their admission. Residents are out of their cabins by 7:00 am and go straight to their puppies’ kennels to clean and disinfect each kennel and get fresh water and food. The boys get their pups out on a leash (perhaps more accurately, the pups get their boys to take them out on a leash) for a short walk and some good-morning connection. Around 4:45 pm the residents return to the kennels to do the care and grooming routine again and say good night.

During the mid-portion of the day, before or after lunch, residents have “Puppy Time,” which is the canine therapy time aimed at one-on-one bonding with their pups. They take them to a private spot on campus, separated from the other guys and their pups by about 50 yards (at the benches that are spread out all over the puppy part of campus). We want no interaction between boys or pups – just individual focused time with the pup and his boy to enhance the bonding. This period lasts for 1 to 1½ hours Monday through Friday and a little longer on the weekend.

We encourage residents to spend only a few minutes in basic training of the pups and spend the rest of the time playing with, touching and making eye contact with the pups. But most of them combine all the above. It’s amazing how much the pups can learn by graduation. It’s also amazing to see what the boys can gain from their pups. When a young adult or teen suffering from depression, or especially a teen abused physically or sexually and is struggling to trust and feel safe, gets their puppy and builds their bond – it is simply amazing.

One such struggling teen, a graduate from 2002, texted me a year or so ago. His text read (I’ve changed the name for confidentiality): “Bo died today, he was 14, can’t talk about it yet, just wanted you to know that he was the most important part of it all.” If I could give Bo a message I’d say, “Good job, Bo!! In your 14-year career, you took your boy from being a 17-year-old who people called a meth addict and whose psychiatrist gave 4 DSM diagnoses, all of which were inaccurate because he had PTSD, and you took him to become a 31-year-old, a good man, a good husband of a wonderful wife, a good dad of 3 delightful kids, and a pastor with a doctorate degree. Good work, Bo!” And praise You, Father!!!

There are many stories of relapse prevention because of the canine companion. One graduate called us after being out of Capstone for a few months and said, “I almost relapsed last night, got triggered really bad and was on the edge of using. But then I looked at Mud and he and I got in the truck, drove to the lake and I threw his bumper dozens of times and he swam out and retrieved every single one. My trigger level went down, and I didn’t relapse.” Mud was a big ole loggerheaded chocolate Lab, and his boy was a very special young man!

Dogs can smell 10,000 to 100,000 times more than a human being. That’s why they can read your emotions so well and why they make great companions and therapy animals. One of the surprises that came out of doing this was the impact of the dog on the family. Yes, the first challenge is holding a strong and healthy boundary with the son in taking care of his dog at home. Past that, it has been really sweet to hear some of the stories of how having the family rally and connect around the dog has helped many families to build their relationship bridges stronger. There was even one dad who called me and was mad at his son for taking his dog with him to college. We both laughed as I commented on what a great and wonderful “loss” that was for him.

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