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The power of puppies for troubled youth

01:30pm October 12 2017

Leila and Opal, two Lead the Way therapy dogs at the heart of a pilot program that aims to tackle youth homelessness. (Melanie G Jones)

In the middle of Melbourne’s CBD, puppies are literally playing their part in assisting the problem of youth homelessness.

During three-hour informal sessions at not for profit Frontyard Youth Services, young people come in and cuddle, play and teach therapy dogs in a safe environment that offers an experience removed from much of their daily lives.

One of the really interesting things about the program is the way young people end up interacting with each other. Rather than young people being in the same room and not engaging with each other, as is often the case, we’ve seen many young people begin to engage with each other THROUGH the dogs during the program. For example, one young person might introduce the dog to someone or instruct how to teach certain tricks. The dog acts as a “facilitator” of interaction in a way that makes the interaction less confrontational or scary or uncomfortable.

The pilot program is part of an increasing focus on the relationship between humans and animals, particularly using animal-assisted interventions (AAI).

AAIs are formal and informal activities and interventions which are underpinned by the inclusion of animals and are shown to have benefits for clients in relation to emotional distress, social relationships and coping skills. Despite many of this group of young people not owning their own pets, there is evidence to suggest that animals still play an important part in the lives of people experiencing homelessness, and may elicit the importance of welfare and safety.

Specifically, for vulnerable groups such as people experiencing homelessness, AAIs have helped foster trusting and positive relationships (between the individual and the animal), reduced confrontational and negative behaviours, and increased personal and social skills.

Youth homelessness is a multifaceted and significant social problem, and an issue that is in the spotlight this week, Mental Health Awareness Week.

It is estimated more than 26,000 Australian youth aged 12-24 years experienced homelessness in 2011, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. And given that young people experiencing homelessness are one of the most vulnerable groups in society – many having experienced trauma and maltreatment in their familial environment – finding ways to assist these young people is critical.  

Frontyard Youth Services, one of Victoria’s largest integrated service providers assisting 12-25 year olds, engaged Lead the WayTM Psychology & Animal-Assisted Therapy (LTW) to deliver the three month pilot AAI. The program consisted of 12 weekly, three-hour, animal-assisted activity sessions with two therapy dogs, evaluated by Frontyard and myself.

More than 170 young people participated in the program with almost 50 per cent engaging in at least four sessions in Frontyard’s “The Basement”, a recreational area where young people can hang out and rest.

Young people often described how taking part in the program affected their sense of wellbeing. Comments included: “The dogs make me feel happy, alive and they brighten up my Wednesdays…The dogs give me a break from my problems…I smile when I am around them and my smile is genuine… It mask’s my problems, the drugs, the family situation… The dogs have assisted me in feeling happy from 12.30 to 3.30 because I don’t think about anything else but how I am going to get another hug from Opal [therapy dog]”.

Another commonly described experience was young people’s perceptions of improving their social skills and connectedness with peers. Feeling safe, relaxed and valued were also prominent themes expressed.

Following the completion of the pilot program, Frontyard in August began Phase 2 of the program, which will continue through to the end of 2017 and again be evaluated by myself in collaboration with Frontyard and Lead the Way. Most importantly, the knowledge gained through the evaluation will aid in building understanding of the use of therapy dogs and animal assisted activities in service settings designed to assist vulnerable and marginalised young people.

The influence of the program is probably best summed up in this comment from one of Frontyard’s workers: “The dogs provide an opportunity for the young people to experience joy and unconditional love”.

We all need someone, human or animal, who provides acceptance, unconditional love, a guiding light through surrounding shadows and an opportunity to smile. The dogs do just that – they are welcoming, they don't judge or talk back, they are excellent listeners and they bask in receiving pats and cuddles … when you’re going through a hard time, this is just what is needed.

Happiness is hugging a therapy dog.

Dr Jess Heerde is a Westpac Bicentennial Foundation Research Fellow and adolescent health researcher at the University of Melbourne. She holds an honorary position at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. Jess has a strong passion for, and commitment to, leadership through her research and to improving the lives of young Australians experiencing homelessness. She has a particular interest in the use of therapeutic dogs working with young people experiencing homelessness.

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