How are your S.T.A.R. Teams different from more traditional therapy dog teams that we see in hospitals and libraries?
The beneficial effect of traditional therapy therapy dogs is well documented — they provide comfort and emotional support for the duration of their visit.
We, on the other hand, have a behavioral modification agenda: we do want to give children moments of joy and personal empowerment, but perhaps even more importantly we want to gently arm them with tools and knowledge that can improve their chance for a safe, healthy, happy life long after we’re gone.
It is the active nature of our engagement with the children that most visibly distinguishes us from other groups:
- Within a session, our dogs are off-leash underscoring the fact that they are not compelled to work with the youth – they can CHOOSE to work with a youth based on the youth’s behavior. We actively engage the children in thinking up and teaching our dogs an amazing assortment of games. This does not sound unusual until you recognize that traditional therapy organizations (e.g., Pet Partners, formerly Delta Society, or Alliance of Therapy Dogs, formerly Therapy Dogs, Inc., or Gabriel’s Angels) at a minimum do not allow animals off-leash. Consider the difference to children between an on-leash dog obeying a command and an uncompelled, off-leash dog CHOOSING to work/play with them!
- Traditional therapy dogs are specifically screened to gently tolerate ANY behavior on the part of the child. Our dogs are encouraged to safely but clearly react to a child’s behavior. One of our goals is for the children to learn to “read” what the dog is telling them so they can begin to understand how one’s behavior affects others.
- Our dog/handler teams do not operate as S.T.A.R. teams outside of our supervision – although a handler may suggest a potential client and ultimately be assigned there, all of our clients must be approved at the organizational level, with great attention paid to safety and support on both sides of the relationship.
Why are you using therapy dogs instead of shelter dogs, as some programs do?
- Our local county human services, school districts, and animal services all prohibit the use of shelter dogs. Substituting registered, seasoned therapy dogs answers their safety concerns and enables us to move more quickly to the “fun stuff”. And our handlers no longer think of the dogs as pets. As Linda tells the kids, “Eli is my partner – I do things WITH him, not TO him.” This mindset allows us to talk honestly about what it means to be a friend.