Thanks to this truly angelic organization, therapy dogs are helping abused and neglected children open up to love, trust and compassion — and break the cycle of violence.
JEANETTE WOOD AND HER DOG CALLIE regularly visit a group home for troubled youth. “Watching a relationship grow visit by visit is incredibly rewarding,” says the volunteer for Gabriel’s Angels, a non-profit organization in Arizona that provides therapy dogs for at-risk youngsters. “Seeing a child with a history of animal abuse start to bond with my dog by feeding, watering and playing with her is amazing.” Jeanette was especially moved when a little girl who used to hit animals told her that she’s now an animal helper. Jeanette believes the transformation occurred because of Callie’s non-judgmental unconditional love for the children.
Each year, calls pour into Arizona’s child protective services. At least 4,000 youngsters, from infants to teens, experience neglect, physical abuse or sexual mistreatment. Gabriel’s Angels was formed in 2000 out of a pressing need to intervene in these children’s lives. The organization was named after the founding dog, a gentle Weimaraner named Gabriel.
In the past 12 years, Gabriel’s Angels has registered 160 pet therapy teams serving over 13,000 children annually through 115 partner agencies in Phoenix and Tucson. All breeds (including some cats), are welcomed, though they must be registered with Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society) or Therapy Dogs, Inc. (www.therapydogs.com).
The therapy teams visit crisis nurseries, domestic violence/ homeless shelters, group homes, and after-school programs. To improve the emotional health and well-being of maltreated and at-risk children, the teams help develop core behaviors, such as empathy and trust, to break the cycle of violence. Visits create and nurture a bond between a therapy dog and a child through activities such as grooming, petting or walking the dog on a leash.
“Overwhelming evidence suggests that a child who witnesses violence is much more likely to grow up to be abusive,” says Pam Gaber, founder and CEO of Gabriel’s Angels. “Without the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to form healthy Mending by Debra J. White Thanks to this truly angelic organization, therapy dogs are helping abused and neglected children open up to love, trust and compassion – and break the cycle of violence is much higher.” Psychological studies confirm that children who experience domestic violence are more likely to become aggressive themselves. Study results vary, but at least 33% of female inmates were abused as children, for example.
Gabriel’s Angels serves children from families with problems such as substance abuse, divorce and homelessness. Psychotherapy, a traditional approach to healing, may not be enough to prevent children from resorting to familiar patterns of violence. Alternative approaches like the Gabriel’s Angels’ pet therapy program offer hope with promising results.
“The emotional and physical benefits of therapy dogs have been established for several decades,” says Phil Arkow of the National Link Coalition, and an animal-assisted therapy instructor. “Children in particular have a natural affinity for animals. This sense of wonder and companionship can be vitally enhanced by pairing youth with these marvelous animals. The effects are magnified and the benefits greatly enhanced when these children have been the victims of violence – or are at risk of committing acts of violence themselves. Gabriel’s Angels has established a well-deserved national reputation as being one of the most comprehensive, progressive, professional and caring programs of its kind in the US, if not the world.”
Because of the diverse personal histories of the children, each animal therapy visit is unique, although Gabriel’s Angels consulted local child welfare experts to develop a program for volunteers to follow. At orientation, the volunteers receive handouts that demonstrate ways to engage children with activities such as combing the dog, brushing the teeth, and filling the water bowl. They listen to the dog’s beating heart with a stethoscope. Volunteers tell children that dogs feel pain just as they do. The exercise is a valuable lesson in building trust and confidence.
Like Jeanette, volunteers tell touching stories about their animal therapy visits. Debbie Coons is a former teacher who volunteers at an after-school program with her two bloodhounds, Beauregard and Georgia. At one point, there was a gang-related murder outside the school. “As we visited over the next weeks and months, the teens would get down on the floor to hug and nuzzle the dog,” says Debbie. “They wouldn’t talk in counseling, but they would talk to me and my dog.”
Sadly, Gabriel himself passed away in 2010 from cancer. But his legacy lives on through the dozens of therapy dogs (and occasional cats) following in his paw prints throughout Arizona.