By Danielle Smith
Leader Staff Writer
Youth and dogs, the perfect mix. Two separate beings that can learn from each other as they mature over time. Thanks to a $102,000 grant gifted to Crossroads for Youth, more adolescents will have the opportunity to teach, and in return, be taught by, local canines looking for their forever homes.
For the past decade, Crossroads for Youth in Oxford has partnered with Teacher’s Pet, a non-profit whose mission is to provide troubled youth and hard-to-adopt shelter dogs a therapeutic setting where both can learn and grow. During this 10-week program, professionals and volunteers from Teacher’s Pet would come out to Crossroads and bring five dogs (one per student) in from Oakland County Animal Control.
Students would then be teamed up with a dog that they would train over the course of the program.
“They are teaching our kids how to train the dogs, so they get one hour of classroom instruction to learn how to read the body language, using all positive (affirmation) techniques,” said Chris Veihl, clinical director for Crossroads for Youth. “During that 10 weeks, our kids are working. They get an hour of classroom and an hour of hands-on (time) working with their dog.”
The program serves two purposes: increase the adoptability of the dogs and according to Veihl, canines that go through the program have a 90-percent adoption rate, but also to “provide (an) incredible therapeutic experience for our kids.”
“For a lot of our kids who are either from our neglected abuse home or even our juvenile justice program, they are getting the opportunity to really increase their sense of self, increase their sense of value, and they have an absolute investment in watching their dog improve and they love it…it’s a perfect match,” Veihl said.
Over the past 10 years, the program has been invaluable to the youth at Crossroads as well as the dogs. However, Veihl has only been able to run the program once or twice a year due to the cost, meaning that only five or 10 kids per year have been able to benefit from this non-traditional therapy.
“It does cost something to be able to participate in the program because the dogs have to be sheltered and then there is the transportation of the animal to our facility…there is a cost to us as an agency to actually participate in the program,” he said. “The per diem that I get from the contracts with the counties and/or the state only pays for my basic stuff, and this program would be considered non-traditional therapy, so it’s not being paid for so we’ve got to pay for it ourselves.”
Knowing how important this program was for the adolescents and canines that participate, Crossroads decided to apply for a grant from Impact100, a group made up entirely of women, looking to give grants to non-profits that serve one of its focus areas: arts and culture, education, environment, family and health and wellness. After applying back in August and going through the elimination process over the past few months, Crossroads was awarded the three-year grant.
“We’re ecstatic about it. What it’s going to allow us to do is phenomenal…that’s a lot of money for us,” Veihl said.
With the $102,000 grant, Veihl will be able to expand the program where it can run year-round, giving every student at Crossroads the chance to participate if they choose to do so. “The other thing I’m going to be able to do is convert one of my cabins that we no longer use for camping and convert that into a full-time dog training center,” he said. “My hope is that in the second year into the grant, I’ll be able to expand (the program) and then make it available to the community.”
Two years ago, Crossroads and Teacher’s Pet participated in a longitudinal study, identifying the positive impacts that this type of therapeutic program had on those who embraced it.
According to Veihl, the study showed that there were positive changes amongst the students in the areas of emotional regulation, empathy and the ability to connect. “Those three areas which are extremely important for any human, but especially a kid who has been abused, has been dealing with a history of trauma in their lives…emotional regulation and empathy are two of the most important areas we can help them grow in,” Veihl said.
However, the biggest change that Veihl has noticed over the years is the students’ sense of purpose. By being the ones training the dogs, the adolescents learn patience, repetition and compassion for their animals.
“There is a level of commitment because they know that their dog has been over there sitting in that shelter and there might be a time where the kid might be having a bad day (thinking) ‘I don’t want to do it, but you know what, my dog wants to see me’ so they will get over there,” he said. “And then they have that sense of value that what (they’re) doing is truly making a difference because if their dog gets adopted, that’s a really awesome experience for them.”
While some may think that it’s a bad thing for the students if their dog gets adopted, Veihl said it’s quite the opposite.
“One of the healthier things that every person needs to be able to do is attach and release; people come into our lives and people leave. And it’s even more difficult for children and adolescents who have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives…and by the time they get out here, they really don’t know how to do that,” he said. “This allows them the opportunity to connect with their dog knowing that their dog is going to leave, so it helps them with that process, it helps them learn how to do that in a healthy way.”
As for the next three years, Veihl says he has already reached out to House of Providence, a local non-profit providing care and supervision for foster youth to potentially have their kids participate in the program as well with an ultimate goal of making this form of therapy available to other community-based kids.