Several years ago A Rotta Love Plus (ARLP) began a formal therapy dog program, pairing pit bulls and Rottweilers with youth in crisis to not only help youth, but to improve the image of our breeds within the community. We didn't know it at the time, but it seems we were part of a growing movement to utilize therapy dogs to change the reputation of certain breeds – pit bulls, Rottweilers, etc. – and enhance local communities at the same time. Happily, there are now a handful of similar programs around the country, and we'll be highlighting them on our blog in the months to come.
We're starting close to home today by interviewing our very own volunteer Education Director, Kellie French. Next week, we'll feature an interview with Lydia Zaidman of Love-A-Bull in Austin, Texas, about their all-pit therapy dog program. If you would like your Rott- or pit-centric therapy dog program to be included in this series, please e-mail Sara Nick. Enjoy!
Photos by Tara Engle Photography.
What was the inspiration for your program? Tell us how you got started.
As a social worker, I have seen a tremendous need for youth services, yet year after year so many great programs experience financial hardship and disappear. In 2008 after getting my first ARLP adopted pit bull registered as a therapy dog, I began to look for organizations that provided shelter and services to at-risk, traumatized youth to visit with my dogs. I had already been coordinating ARLP's Dog Safety Program (within schools, etc.) for a couple years and knew the healing power and positive energy dogs can bring into these environments, so I was anxious to get started with some of the most vulnerable kids. I began by making twice-monthly visits to a residential treatment center for youth.
Soon after, I started to connect with other Twin Cities community members who work with animals and children within a therapeutic setting. This networking resulted in my being hired in 2009 to facilitate animal and art therapy groups to children residing within domestic violence shelters. I was amazed by the stories that the children would share about their experiences of violence, and it seemed like they were open to sharing these very difficult stories and feelings because the dogs created a safe environment. At this same time I teamed up with another dog handler to visit at a local youth shelter on an informal basis.
Kellie French and therapy dogs Cedric and Marri
Over time, I began to brainstorm a new program idea. Because I had access to other volunteers who had been part of ARLP’s Dog Safety Program for many years, I already had a pool of dog/handler teams. They were all excited about the possibility of this new program and, after many meetings and emails, we came up with a name, a mission, and a target audience. We knew we had a perfect fit, given the similarities between our marginalized dog breeds (pit bulls and Rottweilers) and marginalized youth, both groups commonly experiencing abuse, neglect, and judgment.
The program, now known as PRIORITY Paws – which stands for Pit bull and Rottweiler Interactive OutReach, Instruction, and Therapy for Youth – was officially underway in February 2010. We began our formal partnership with The Bridge for Youth in Minneapolis at that time. Later that same year, we began a formal partnership with St. Joseph's Home for Children, also in Minneapolis. This year, we formed a connection with Ain Dah Yung (a shelter providing services predominately to Native American youth) in St. Paul. Each of these locations provide housing and services to youth who are experiencing some type of family crisis.
Bettie, PRIORITY Paws dog
Currently, 16 pit bulls and Rottweilers and their humans volunteer with us. Each week we conduct three visits, with at least two dog/handler teams plus an extra person – a facilitator – attending each session.
What are the requirements for a dog/handler team if they want to join your program?
Pit bulls or Rottweilers who are registered therapy dogs are welcome to join our team. We very much encourage, but do not require, the dogs to be adopted from a shelter or rescue – as these dogs and their stories can make a powerful connection with the kids.
What human population(s) does your program serve?
PRIORITY Paws serves at-risk, traumatized youth who have experienced homelessness, abuse, and/or neglect.
Describe your program's curriculum.
PRIORITY Paws is an animal-assisted intervention program. We work with staff and therapists at our program locations to come up with weekly curricula that can best assist the youth in achieving overall wellness and help reunite families, which are the primary missions of all of our partner organizations. Each session deals with a topic of high relevance to youth (e.g., safety, support/trust, building positive relationships, and more); each topic is also discussed as it relates to dogs.
Have you faced any breed discrimination in trying to get the programs set up? If so, how did you overcome it?
Luckily, none of our partner organizations have turned us away based on the breeds that make our program possible. There has been some hesitation from certain individuals (e.g., a youth-org staff member here and there), but they often talk openly about their apprehension and make attempts to overcome their fears.
Share a memorable moment that has occurred during one of your therapy dog sessions.
I will never forget one 16-year old who, when talking about what he hoped for his future, summed up exactly what we are trying to accomplish with our programs: “I wish that I will find my own happy home. I relate to the dogs because everyone needs a place to belong.” I actually have this quote posted in my office!
How is your program changing minds about pit bulls and Rottweilers?
As an example, the new director of the Bridge for Youth met with the PRIORITY Paws team to learn more about our program. He admitted being a little timid around pit bulls, but he changed his mind when he saw our dogs rolling on their belly for the youth and showing off their tricks. He told us how much he loves the concept of how our dogs and youth share common life experiences, like being the target of prejudice and judgment.
Highlight a particular therapy dog from your program. What makes this dog special to PRIORITY Paws?
It would be impossible to share a story about just one dog; each and every dog who is part of PRIORITY Paws bring so much to the program and each dog has something different to offer the youth! We have at least two dog/handler teams present for each group, so I try to match a more excitable dog with one that is more laid back for each session. This allows a youth who is slightly fearful of dogs (or simply shy or introverted) to connect with the mellow dog, whereas the more outgoing and excitable dog is a great match for a youth with more energy. This means at any time, within any group, each dog can be a perfect match with a number of the youth present that day.
Why do you think pit bulls and Rottweilers make good therapy dogs?
I’ve been a part of a number of therapy dog groups with various breeds, and I convinced that pit bulls make the best therapy dogs for youth. (Yes, I am biased). Pit bulls seem to absolutely love interacting with youth! The high-energy nature of some of the dogs matches perfectly with that of the youth, their shorter hair leaves the spaces cleaner, and their medium size allows them to fit nicely in tighter spaces or rooms. Overall, a pit bull's temperament of being a complete people-pleaser and clown makes them a perfect match for youth who are experiencing tough time. As for Rottweilers, their size and gentle, regal presence always have a big effect on the kids. The kids love getting to witness the paradox of the large and tough-looking, but gentle and goofy Rotties!
What advice would you give to someone starting their own pit bull therapy dog program?
For the dogs: follow the rules of national therapy dog organizations. For the human volunteers: offer trainings or times to meet so everyone knows what is expected of them and what the organization, target population, and program are going to be like. For program development: after ‘selling’ your program to a facility, be sure that there is at least one person working there who is committed to championing your program and being your main contact.
Anything else we should know?
We are so excited to watch the partnerships between human-service and animal-welfare organizations grow and develop, bringing people who care about people and animals together in ways that they have not before. We are also happy to see the tremendous amount of joy from the youth, and look forward to developing ways to evaluate the positive outcomes that we experience every week. In gathering this information we hope to publish our results and show the world the important things that are achieved when dogs are conduits for change in struggling young people's lives. Not just any dogs, but pit bulls and Rottweilers, who – similar to the youth we serve – are often viewed as discarded, unwanted, forgotten, mean, or worthless. Ultimately, we are hoping to create a better future for pit bulls and Rottweilers and our community's youth.
Where can people get more info about PRIORITY Paws?
Shoot us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org (we are all volunteers so it may take a few days to get back to you!).