Lending A Paw

Neighbors

Neighbors Canines Prove Beneficial For Young Patients Struggling With Life

August 23, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Many people still fondly remember a dog named Lassie, who captivated the entire country with her superhero escapades in films and on TV decades ago.

The rough-coated collie always knew when owner Timmy was in trouble, whether the young boy was unconscious in a burning building or trapped in a cave. Her rescue abilities and sixth sense have been exaggerated to near-mythic proportions over the years.

That powerful animal-human connection has been reborn locally, but with a new twist.

Young patients at the Family Center in Ellicott City have discovered their own canine star in an intuitive collie named Lady, a gentle 16-month-old dog who works with them in animal-assisted therapy.

"Lady has brought about huge changes in children who are dealing with issues like anxiety, depression and impulse control," said Gail Walter, clinical psychologist and director of the center, which she founded as a private practice in 1984. Children with autism have also benefited, she said.

"It's empowering to a child to 'train' an animal by learning to give it commands," said the Fulton resident, who has lived in Howard County for nearly 40 years.

Eileen Milligan, Lady's owner and trainer, agreed.

"Dogs feed on energy, and kids have a way higher level than adults," said Milligan, a Columbia resident whose "furry children" are her five dogs. "Animals can have a calming effect."

Milligan regularly brings Lady and her other dogs to the Dorsey Hall Drive office, including Chiquita the Chihuahua, Cricket the Italian greyhound, Brer the Pomeranian and Tito the miniature pinscher - all purebred animals that coexist peacefully with their owner.

Milligan said the characteristics of the different breeds help children learn life lessons, which in turn helps them manage situations with others. While they aren't therapy dogs, the four augment the program, she said.

"The kids learn to be especially gentle with Tito, who is fragile like all greyhounds, or with Chiquita, who is so tiny," she said.

The Family Center, a practice of 10 clinicians with different disciplines, based its program on the handbook of the Delta Society, an international organization that works with service and therapy dogs, said Walter.

Based in Bellevue, Wash., the Delta Society began its Pet Partners program of training handlers in animal-assisted therapy in 1990, said JoAnn Turnbull, marketing director, and is active in all 50 states and 13 countries.

"A dog isn't judgmental, so children often can open up and share their thoughts with the dog," Turnbull said. "Kids focus on the dog, and there's joy in doing that."

Milligan echoed the sentiment that a dog should bring joy, not only to the patient but to the handler as well. Her training methods don't include clickers, choke chains or other behavior control devices, she said.

"My method is natural to the dog, and it works faster," said the longtime fan of British dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse.

"All dogs speak the same language," said Milligan, who always accompanies Lady when she's on assignment. "I teach people to communicate with them."

Alison Dunton, a child psychologist who has practiced at the Family Center for two years, worked recently with Lady to help an 8-year-old boy. When he had trouble persuading Lady to follow his commands, Dunton asked him "to remember to keep your energy nice and low."

"You know how sometimes at home Mom and Dad tell you to do three things, and that's confusing to you?" asked Dunton, one of three therapists who work with the collie. "You have to give Lady one command at a time."

The boy said afterward that he loved Lady, adding, "She makes me feel good, and it's very fun to work with her."

"It's neat that he controlled the situation, because with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, you're not always in control," said the boy's mother. "This therapy has been a very positive experience for us."

As part of the initial process, the boy drew pictures to communicate his goals, one of which was to calm down and feel less nervous. Many of Lady's fans have written notes and sent photos, staff said, so they made business cards for her.

"For kids, the idea that their behavior can calm the dog [in turn] boosts their confidence and self-esteem," Dunton said.

Turnbull, noting there are no national statistics on the number of places practicing animal-assisted therapy, pointed out that even abused children have been helped by abused dogs rescued from shelters and turned into therapy animals by their owners.

Approaches for children already in use at The Family Center include music, art and play therapies, said Walter, who likes to pilot new concepts each summer.

Along with animal-assisted therapy, which has helped 40 to 50 of the center's young patients, the staff has introduced live parent-coaching, which uses two-way mirrors and ear microphones for instruction and observation.

She also said the center plans to extend animal-assisted therapy to adult patients soon.

"Practices have to adapt to the community," Walter said. "As demands on people's time increase and their circumstances change, so must we."

Neighbors Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg at jholzberg76@msn.com or 410-461-4150.

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