A Troubled Youth and His Fuzzy Visitor
by Pat Dowell, reprinted from 1Q 2003 Newf Tide
A young boy lies on a concrete floor wearing a blue jumpsuit, rubber thong sandals and no socks. All of his focus is on the big brown fuzzy Newfoundland dog that lies next to him. The boy snuggles closer and buries his face in the Newfie's neck. For what seems like an interminable amount of time, the room is silent. The face of one of the adults, a staff member, is streaked with tears and she excuses herself and leaves the room. Within minutes, a group of other staff members stands outside the room looking through the window and shaking their heads in disbelief. The only sound is the young boy whispering to the Newfie.
The big brown Newf is my then three year old, Gentle Ben. The boy is a 12 year old youth being housed in the juvenile detention center. He has a history of violent/destructive behaviors, depression, and the reading level of a first grader. He was regularly placed in constraints for his safety and for the safety of those around him. He was born a crack baby and has been in and out of institutions since he was eight years old.
For two months, Ben and I visited this youth at least once a week. During none of these visits did the boy speak to me. Because of the calming effect of Ben on the youth, a guard in the room was no longer needed. When we walked into the room I would put Ben's brush, some treats, a ball, and one of Ben's stuffed animals on a chair and sit there while the boy talked to Ben, brushed him and snuggled with him. I would talk but get no response.
Then one day the youth asked me if I could bring some pictures of Ben as a puppy. From then on we would talk while he focused on Ben. The psychologist who had been hesitant to have us meet with this violent youth was amazed at the interactions and the metamorphosis of this youth when around Ben.
We began to work on the importance of a calm voice/demeanor when giving Ben commands. Judi Adler's Newfoundland coloring book became part of our visits as did the two children's books, The Angel of Mill Street and Newf. Cheryl Dondino's water training video became a part of the center's library so that the young boy could see what Newfies can be trained to do and how handlers go about interacting with their Newfs.
Due to the severity of the charges and the complexity of finding the "right" institution for this boy, our visits extended over a period of six months. After he was moved to the new facility, I received several emails from staff telling me that he read only the books on Newfs and the limited writing he did always involved a story about Ben and the secrets he had told him.
It had been about two years since we had any personal interaction with the boy. While on one of our regular visits to the youth detention center, the psychologist approached my and said the youth was back and asking to see Ben. Whether the positive changes I saw in this youth were directly related to Ben, or whether it was maturity, I don't know. I do know that his visits with Ben provided him with the only warmth and affection he received in the absence of any family to visit him and his soon to be placement in yet another institution.
He may be two years older but his reaction on seeing Ben was the same- big hugs, snuggles laying next to Ben and no need for words- except telling Ben he had missed him so much!