Most perpetrators of domestic violence are also harming the family pets. One study reported that 48 percent to 71 percent of battered women reported that their pets had also been threatened, harmed, or killed by their partners. The most statistically reliable predictor for determining if a child will grow up to be a violent offender of any kind is witnessing animal abuse as a child. What a child sees he is likely to repeat. Early intervention is critical.

An award-winning Washington County Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) dealing with the strong link between domestic violence and animal abuse needed a “stop the cycle” component for affected children. It was decided to offer at-risk children an attractive alternative to violence – a fun, coercion-free method of “getting what you want” which also allowed them to experience a healthy, trust-based relationship. The Little Dog Laughed Animal-Assisted Therapy, and its clicker-training-based S.T.A.R. (See, Tag And Reward) program was born.

S.T.A.R. Teams of dog/handler pairs offer a thoughtfully structured set of short classes that communicate in an empowering, entertaining way concepts that are naturally inherent in positive dog training:

  • how to build a positive relationship based on empathy, shared communication, and trust

  • effective, non-violent methods of problem solving.

  • how to break down large problems into manageable bits

  • safe, respectful treatment of animals

What exactly does a S.T.A.R. Team DO?

In the first visit, the primary focus is on safe and respectful conduct around dogs and learning to “understand what dogs are trying to say”. Subsequent sessions move swiftly through:

  • Introducing STAR.Team terminology (See, Tag And Reward) and modeling how this works by teaching the therapy dog something totally new in five minutes using a clicker and without speaking a word.
  • Demonstrating the process by training the children’s counselor/teacher to do something silly.
  • Practicing as a group the motor skills needed (both clicking/tagging and rewarding)
  • Practicing teaching each other without using a single word except for the sound of the “click” (using M&M/Skittles/etc. rather than dog treats)
  • Picking a good, preferably silly, game/skill for the students to teach the dog. Note: our handlers have colorful props that suggest specific behaviors (e.g., a tiny basketball goal, a skateboard, etc.) but the kids are encouraged to put their personal stamp on the end product.
  • Reviewing the “Trainer’s Promise” (see illustration).
  • Discussing how a complex problem (e.g., teaching a dog how to play basketball) is handled by breaking it down into much smaller, easier to train steps/skills that can be worked on one at a time.  (“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time”). Example: To play basketball, we may decide the dog needs to be able to (1) hold a ball in its mouth, (2) retrieve a ball that is thrown, (3) locate the basketball hoop, (4) put the ball in the hoop, and (5) go to its mat to start the game again.
  • Coaching the children as they teach the therapy dog each of the needed skills individually. Overseeing the “assembly process” of putting those learned skills together in longer and longer sequences (behavior chains) until we reach the final complete behavior.