PRIORITY Paws

2013 was another year of growth for ARLP’s PRIORITY Paws program, which brings therapy Rottweilers and pit bulls to youth in order to promote humane attitudes toward animals and people. Programs such as PP are what ARLP is all about: not just pulling dogs from shelters one at a time, but also working hard in our community to make sure the next generation of dog owners has the tools and knowledge to do things a little differently. A little better.

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The dogs bring smiles to [the kids’] faces, and it's so rewarding to be a part of that.” – Sarah L.

ARLP’s supporters and volunteers enabled PRIORITY Paws to serve roughly 340 youth in crisis this year. That’s 340 youth who will face their future with a new respect for dogs – especially our beautiful breeds – and for themselves, as custodians of animals they encounter in the future.

Being a part of PRIORITY Paws brings me happiness…[We’re] sharing our life book with one another, learning how to trust.” – Harmony G.

The past year saw new partnerships and new supporters. We began partnering with Ain Dah Yung in February in order to serve St. Paul youth ages 5-18, which led us to new and innovative teaching methods that were both fun and informative.

I also remember an older youth who was very tall and seemingly tough who was afraid to be near the dogs.  At the end of the session, he asked if he could give Mercedes a treat.  He gave her a treat and asked to give another for a trick.  I told him how brave he was to overcome his fear...Sometimes we can't reach the youth, but the dogs can!" - Laurel B.

In August, our other facility – the Bridge for Youth in Minneapolis – received a grant that provided funding for PRIORITY Paws and enabled us to boost our services to twice weekly instead of once. This funding is very exciting for ARLP as it also comes with formal evaluation of the success of the program, which we hope to share with our supporters next year.

Tally wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the compassionate action of many people...Serving as a therapy dog team for PRIORITY PAWS lets us pass on all that love and compassion to kids at the Bridge. I find it sweetly appropriate that Tally, who went so long without a safe home of her own, can bring a bit of comfort to kids [in a similar situation].” – Ruth P.

And in September, we were honored to be included in the ABCDOG golf event, which raised a large amount of money to ensure PRIORITY Paws’ continuation.

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At this time of year we also reflect on the outstanding new teams that have joined us this year, each of whom bring exciting new skills and stories to our groups. And of course, we remember the teams who have retired from PRIORITY Paws, whose gifts will be sorely missed.

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As we look forward to continuing our humane programming in 2014, we want to say – simply but sincerely – thank you to everyone who has supported PRIORITY Paws in 2013. Your support means the world to ARLP and those we serve!

These kids are amazing the way they process negative experiences and for a large part have gained insight and wisdom (at an early age) from those experiences. I suspect they have a good shot at being even more amazing than they already are. [Sometimes] I suspect I walk away with more than I brought.” – Seth W.

For more information on PRIORITY Paws, contact Kellie at education@arottalove.org.

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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

How many dog teams are currently participating with PRIORITY Paws? How often do you go on visits?

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.


Rachel (ARLP President) with PRIORITY Paws dog Jana and the late great Jake

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!


Josie, PRIORITY Paws dog

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 education@arottalove.org (we are all volunteers so it may take a few days to get back to you!).

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For over a year now, ARLP’s PRIORITY Paws program has been visiting teens in crisis who reside at The Bridge for Youth. Often, youth at the Bridge are seeking respite from their homes; many have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect – or some combination of the three – and are craving guidance and hope from anyone who can help them envision a happier future. It comes as no surprise, then, that the PRIORITY Paws therapy dogs, many of whom have recovered from heartbreakingly relatable stories, provide welcome parables of optimism for youth and their caregivers alike.

As Bridge staff member Eddie Rogers puts it, “It’s awesome to hear youth begin to share their feelings and thoughts after and during dog therapy. When the dogs’ stories are told, the youth begin to relate. The interactions between the dogs and youth are a sight to behold.”

Bettie at the Bridge

Most of the time, the PRIORITY Paws curriculum is fairly structured. For example, in the curriculum on communication, facilitators lead a discussion about how dogs communicate, then move on to the topic of how people communicate, and finally tie the two together to allow the youth to connect the dots.

However, at a recent Wednesday evening session at the Bridge, PRIORITY Paws facilitators Harmony and Curtis led the youth in a more creative exercise. Splitting the youth into two teams and pairing each youth team with a dog/handler team – Lindsey/Bettie and Sara/Josie in this case – the facilitators asked the youth to brainstorm a list of words. The words could be anything that related to the youth or the dogs’ past, present, or future; the teens interviewed Lindsey and Sara in order to create this list. From the lists, the youth teams had just ten minutes to write a rap for a “battle rap” that would take place when the timer went off.

If there was any doubt that the youth would understand the exercise despite a lack of a “connect the dots” explanation ahead of time, let it be laid to rest:

That evening, the purity of the connection between human and animal experiences was never more apparent: The youth understood that because someone cared enough, these dogs survived. And so will they.

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ARLP's PRIORITY Paws team gathered last week at the new ARLP office in Golden Valley to receive a continuing education seminar on the use of animal-assisted interventions (AAI) with youth who have experienced trauma.

The speaker, licensed psychologist Molly Deprekel, has a background in counseling, animal science, and sensorimotor psychotherapy, which made her the ideal individual to speak to the PRIORITY Paws team.  The two-hour presentation covered the basic tenets behind the use of AAI with youth in crisis, which is directly relevant to the PRIORITY Paws program.

Tips from Molly's thoroughly research-based presentation included:

  • The benefits of kinesthetic activities to keep teens engaged and learning
  • Ways to provide the youth with a sense of mastery over tasks and ultimately, their environment
  • How to work with teens to increase their resources without pushing them over their threshold
  • Ways that subtle interactions between the handler and his or her dog can have lasting effects on the youth
  • How the T-Touch method can be used as a calming technique for youth, animals, staff, and volunteers

Each of the volunteers who attended this seminar will immediately be able to put these new skills into use at St. Joe's and The Bridge.  ARLP is so grateful to Molly, Natalie (human assistant), and Mariah (canine assistant) for taking the time to ensure that ARLP's PRIORITY Paws program continues to evolve and improve.

Note: We highly recommend Molly and her programs. On October 29-30, Molly and colleagues will be hosting a weekend course on mindfulness, meditation, and learning. Check it out here. This event is not affiliated with ARLP, but we thought it might be of interest to those who follow our blog. 

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