Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sue Scheff: Therapy Dogs and At-Risk Teens

Dogs and troubled teens? It may seem like an odd combination, however it is amazing how animals can change lives. Today more and more teen help programs and juvenile centers are incorporating canine therapy and/or equine therapy (horses). Helping struggling teens recognize their potential and self-worth can help them to make better choices in their lives.

Dawn Kairns, author and Family Nurse Practitioner, is making a difference with her therapy dog, Maddie. MAGGIE, The Dog Who Changed My Life: A Story of Love is a book that started a new chapter in the author's life; Helping at-risk teens at juvenile centers is just one of them. Here is a recent interview with author Dawn Kairns:

1. Many of us love animals and especially love our dogs. Please tell us what prompted you to write about your special love, Maggie?

"MAGGIE" actually began as my grief journal after she died. Writing what I remembered about our life together is what helped me to cope with my heartbreaking loss.

I was so struck by Maggie's ability to know what I said, thought, and wanted that I felt compelled to share it so others could look for and validate their perceptions of their dog's sixth sense abilities. Learning to trust my intuition and dream messages were such valuable lessons with Maggie - I wanted to share these special and unique experiences. I also wanted to share the depth of my grief and how I began to heal so others in my shoes will feel supported in theirs, understood and hopeful. Finally, it was my tribute to Maggie, to our relationship.

I also wanted to share with pet guardians my shocking discoveries about the commercial pet food industry, nutrition, and alternative pet health care, like acupuncture.

2. In your former life (prior being a writer) you were a Family Nurse Practitioner. Do you feel that this helped you write about your relationship with Maggie?

I feel several things contributed. My years of personal journaling and a writing course were a huge help in writing about my relationship with Maggie. My years as a psychotherapist probably helped me express my feelings more as well as tune in to Maggie's nonverbal communication. My personal dream work with a Jungian therapist gave me a deeper insight into understanding the significant dreams I had during Maggie's illness and to write about & interpret them in my book. My work as a Family Nurse Practitioner certainly helped me write about the medical, health and nutritional aspects in relation to Maggie.

3. You stated: "My book explores a deeper, spiritual side of the human-canine bond…including animal telepathy, and the importance of trusting our intuition and dream messages" - Please share with us one or more of your experiences and how others can benefit from this.

As far as Maggie "reading my mind," I noticed very early In Maggie's life that she responded appropriately to words I hadn't taught her yet. Then she seemed to understand sentences and explanations about staying out of my flower beds and not going into the street. When I got ready for work and simply thought, "maybe today I can take her with me," she responded with excitement where she would normally recognize my work clothes as a sign that there was no fun coming for her, and she lay down and ignore me, her disappointment obvious.

I learned the importance of trusting my gut feelings over the expertise of others the hard way, by NOT trusting my intuition & I later regretting that choice; veterinarians misdiagnose, as more than one did with Maggie; no one knows our pets like we do. Had I followed my intuition, Maggie may have lived several years longer than she did. I encourage readers/ pet guardians to advocate & speak out if a diagnosis does not make sense to them.

I have kept dream journals for years. A couple of months prior to taking Maggie to a new veterinarian I dreamed that I had her at the vet & he didn't know what was wrong with her, but someone else in his office did. This is exactly what turned out to be true over the course of several months (the misdiagnosis cost her life). It was another woman (vet) in his office who saw Maggie who got us on the right track. I also had 2 dreams that Maggie's neck was bald & irritated. This was prior to learning she had thyroid cancer. When she finally had a biopsy, this is exactly what her neck looked like. These are just a few examples of how my dreams tried to warn me when all was not well with Maggie. At the time I didn't know clairvoyant dreams were possible. Now I do. Maggie and I were so connected that I believe our spiritual bond allowed for this level of sixth sense communication.

4. Many people have heard of Service Dogs, dog that assist the elderly, disabled or otherwise may need a Service dog. Please tell us about a Therapy Dog and how they can help people?

A therapy dog visits people in various contexts such as in hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes, schools, juvenile centers, etc. People with learning difficulties & those in stressful situations such as disaster areas can benefit, too.

The most important characteristic of a therapy dog is its temperament. A good therapy dog enjoys human contact & petting, is friendly, patient, gentle, confident, & at ease in all situations. Therapy Dogs can help people by providing affection and comfort, connection, acceptance and no judgment at a time when people in institutions may feel lonely, isolated, unloved, or judged.

5. Your most recent attribute is helping juveniles (high risk teens) with your Therapy Dog, Maddie. Teens that are in trouble or struggling in life, are not mature enough to truly understand the consequences of negative behavior. How do you feel Canine Therapy (therapy dogs) can help them?

In Maddie's case, the kid's at both juvenile centers I've taken her to have really enjoyed playing with her, and getting her to follow the commands I demonstrated that Maddie follows. It can help their confidence. She makes them smile at a very difficult time in their lives; brings them a moment of joy when they are facing the judicial system and taking a hard look at themselves.

I teach the kids about positive reinforcement training, which shows them how important it is to be patient with a dog and to recognize/reward good behavior, again something that will benefit them if they learn to notice the good instead of the negative behavior in themselves and others, as well as in the dogs. The teens also get to learn about caring for and nurturing a dog in a positive way, something that may be lacking in the way they are treated in their lives, depending on their background.

In more in depth canine programs, where, for example a juvenile is paired with a shelter dog to train for several weeks, the at-risk kids experience the power of the human-animal bond. This enables them to experience tremendous growth and behavioral improvements. Dogs have opened prisoner's hearts in ways humans have not. The same is true with teens. The more in-depth canine/youth program also dramatically improves the adoptability of the shelter dogs, which gives the kids a sense of accomplishment and builds their confidence.

If you want to learn more about MAGGIE, The Dog Who Changed My Life you can also visit the author's website at

Watch slideshow to meet Maggie, Maddie and Dawn.  Also on Examiner.

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