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Newfs and Adolescents

by Sue Marino
reprinted from NewfTide 1Q 2009

Newfoundlands are natural therapy dogs. During the past 16 years, six of my Newfs have been certified and active in therapy work, and they never cease to amaze me with their intuitive ability to read people. My Newfs have visited hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, schools for disabled children, acute psychiatric adolescent units, and adolescent group homes. They have also provided therapy visits at the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life for many years.

To find the best setting for my dogs to work, I put the best interests of both dogs and residents first. I found working with adolescents with behavioral or psychiatric problems to be the ideal setting for my Newfs. Their size is a good match for the teens, and it has been a perfect venue for the dogs’ compassion and tolerance. I also enjoy the fact that the Newfs are part of the therapy for these adolescents, not just visitors. Teens are usually sent to acute psychiatric units, because they are a danger to themselves and others. These teens have to earn time through good behavior to visit with the dog. They can earn five minutes alone with the dog, 10 minutes with another peer and the dog, or even work up to walking outside on the grounds with the dog.

Most of the adolescents in this population have very low self-esteem. Most crave affection, and the counselors in these facilities are not allowed to offer affection. Many have been in foster care all of their lives and have never been shown love or expressed love. Many times counselors are in tears as they watch these children and teens interact with a Newf. The Newf leans into the child and stays perfectly still for a long hug or the dog licks the child’s face, gives a paw, or rolls over for a belly rub. In some cases, it is the first time the child has been shown or given affection. They stroke their heads, tell them they love them, and hold conversations with them. Sometimes they open up about things that the counselors have not been able to get the child to discuss.

Newfoundland Therapy Dog

Newfoundlands can provide a soft place to rest, an ear to listen, a body to hug, and warm, slobbery kisses.

One girl had been in the facility for a week and had spoken only gibberish. The counselors could not comprehend anything she was saying, and she did not respond to them. Since they were running out of ideas, they asked if I would visit her. She entered the room, slid to her knees to hug the dog, and said, “I love dogs; I want to be a veterinarian, you know.” She proceeded to talk about all the dogs she knew and why she liked them so much. The counselor told her they had books about dogs in the library, and when our session ended, she went to the library and checked some out.

Many of the teens love to teach the Newfs to do tricks. I am proud to say that many of these teens have learned the process of operant conditioning through the explanation of clicker training. I don’t just teach them the signals to get the Newfs to do tricks; I teach them about the training, and many times they put together their own tricks to teach the dogs. They are so proud when they show a new resident or family member what they “can make the big dog do”.

The Newfs serve as wonderful icebreakers in some of these programs. At one of our visits to a group home, a new boy had just arrived. His belongings were still in the foyer. The boys gathered around to show this new boy the dog. They told him all about the dog and showed him some of the tricks they could make him do. The best part followed when they showed the new boy how he too could make the dog do tricks, and they praised his attempts and successes. Then they all grabbed his belongings and said, “Come on, we’ll help you and show you your new room.” The counselors were dumbstruck. They had never before seen a new boy welcomed so openly.

Many times the Newf senses what is needed and initiates the interaction. A young boy of about 13 had just been told he would not be able to go home for Christmas, which was less than a week away. He was very angry and sad and sat in a chair with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. My dog, Nemo, approached and sat looking at him. When the boy did not respond, Nemo pushed his elbow with his nose. The boy ignored him. Nemo pushed again. This time the boy reached down and started to pat the dog. His expression softened but then he caught himself, remembered that he was angry, and pulled his hand away. Nemo persisted. A shove of the elbow, a paw in the lap, and the boy again began to pat him. This time Nemo sidled over closer. As he leaned on the boy’s legs, a small smile came to his face. He tried to fight his emotions, but it was too late. Nemo had his head in his lap.

p and licked his face. That was the final straw. The boy stood, took out a ball, and started to play with Nemo. The boy did not get to go home for Christmas but he enjoyed himself that evening.

On another visit my Newf, Gator, was on the floor rolling around with a young girl. She was having a wonderful time with him, hugging him while they swatted at each other with hands and paws. When the girl left, the counselor told me that the next boy to visit was nervous. He was afraid of big dogs and didn’t want to visit. The counselors told him we would not let the dog approach, and he could just look at it. I thought it might be tough for Gator to adjust to just looking at a visitor since the last one had been actively rolling around on the floor with him.

I planned to actively restrain Gator. When the boy came in and sat in a chair, I walked Gator over until we were about four feet away. On a loose leash, Gator held the distance and just looked at the boy while I told him all about Gator. As I talked, Gator slowly inched forward. He got to within three feet of him, and the boy smiled. Without moving closer, Gator reached out and put a paw on the boy’s knee and held it there. The boy stroked his paw, and Gator wiggled a little closer. The boy reached out a hand and started to pat Gator’s head. Gator wiggled even closer so that he was right up against the boy’s legs. The boy continued to pat him and talk to him while Gator stayed sitting against his legs. The boy enjoyed the visit and continued to visit with us weekly.

I have many wonderful stories of Newfs as therapy dogs. There was the teenage girl with a sleep disorder, who would lay on the floor with her head on the dog’s side. She would relax as the dog’s breathing caused her head to rise and fall, and the counselors reminded the girl to think about how she felt with the dog when her head was on her pillow at night. It almost became a hypnotic session, and I found myself relaxing and almost nodding off.

Everyone gains something different from visiting with the dogs. Some with anger issues are encouraged to brush the dog, which tends to relax them; others, in need of confidence, teach the dog tricks; others just share love and enjoy receiving love. Occasionally some of the teens will try to tease the dog or act inappropriately, and I remind them that this behavior is not allowed with my dog. You definitely have to be an advocate for your dog, but I always go away with a feeling of well being, knowing the joy and love that my dogs share on these visits.






reprinted from 1Q NewfTide 2009 pp 11- 21






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