Animal-assisted therapy provides opportunities for students to experience love, empathy, and acceptance by building relationships with animals. In our environment, students experientially live and learn our CASA model through the practice of building relationship skills with a safe animal, then taking those skills and practicing them in their healthy human relationships. We call this Transferable Attachment Therapy and it is incredibly powerful.
At Calo Preteens, our goal for the student is to practice safe and healthy attachment. Through animal-assisted therapy, a child is able to recognize what trust really means in a relationship. The students recognize parallels between their relationship with an animal and their relationships with people. It’s a proven form of therapy that has positive outcomes for many struggling with behavioral and emotional issues.
Animal-Assisted Therapy at Calo Preteens: Canines and Hedgehogs
Calo Preteens opened after Calo Teens. At Calo Teens, the canine foster adoption program is available to all students who enroll. The goal was to continue this canine adoption program with Calo Preteens, but we discovered that the canine relationship was too intense for the age and developmental state of our preteens.
Our Preteens aren’t able to provide consistently for the canines, which is the first step and foundation that the adoption program is built on. Because of this, we removed the canine foster adoption program from Calo Preteens.
We continue to offer animal-assisted therapy with canines. At least one dog is in every team of 8 students. The dog travels with the students all day—they attend school with them, go to therapy sessions, group therapy and outside play. The dogs are able to co-regulate the students and help them navigate responsibility and relationships.
Many parents say they are perplexed at how their children respond to the animals versus people. This phenomenon is also proven by studies that show therapy dogs help alleviate anxiety in patients about to undergo an MRI. Professionals can now pinpoint and map the calming effect that animals have on the amygdala in the brain, which is responsible for emotional responses.
Because of this, Calo Preteens was determined to enhance our program even more. While canines seemed to improve the students’ experiences, we wanted to provide more than just one canine per team. We wanted to provide something that was a less intense animal relationship for the preteens. So with determination, we set out to find the right animal for our student’s developmental state.
Enter the Hedgehog: Our Story
Jeanna Osborn, our Animal Assisted Therapy Director, was researching what animal would be the best for a preteen adoption program and work well with the canines. After much research and discussion from various sources, Jeanna was introduced to the hedgehog in a unique, but endearing way.
Jeanna was at her sister’s home when a nine-year-old girl stopped by to show off her birthday present. The gift was a hedgehog. She was very excited and proud of her new pet. Intrigued, Jeanna sat with her as she shared everything she knew about hedgehogs. She explained why they curl up in a ball and how they get out of the ball. She said they will eventually come out of their quilled up position, but you have to gain their trust first. To gain their trust, there was a certain way to pet and handle the hedgehog. All of a sudden, the hedgehog unrolled and started to run up Jeanna’s arm.
Jeanna decided to bring the hedgehog to Calo Preteens to demonstrate and get a feel for how the students would respond. She explained the process the same way the young girl did for her—adding that every time you switch handlers, the hedgehog senses a different handler and will quill up until that handler has gained its trust.
During her presentation, one of the students made a powerful statement: “That’s just like me.”
Jeanna was stunned. Goosebumps ran up her arms and legs. After this experience, Jeanna knew this was the animal the preteens needed. The reaction the students had was priceless. They understood and could relate to the hedgehog. It provided a foundation and vehicle for communication between students and their therapist. Now, students teach each other, new students, staff and anyone who will listen all about the hedgehog and how they are “like them”.
How is the hedgehog integrated at Calo Preteens?
Each team home has at least one hedgehog. Our goal for 2019 is to move forward with Phase 2 where we can provide opportunities for every student to foster and eventually adopt a hedgehog to take home with them when they rejoin their family.
As the implementation is still fairly new with Calo Preteens, the goal is to eventually integrate the hedgehogs into every aspect of life—just like they do with the canines at Calo Teens. They will have carrying cases that will allow the hedgehogs to curl up and stay with the child throughout the day.
Is hedgehog assisted-therapy safe?
At first, parents might be skeptical. They might look at the hedgehog and think it’s dangerous. While the quills are spiked, they aren’t like porcupines whose quills can penetrate the skin. As long as they are handled in the correct way, there is no problem. None of the students have been injured in any way by the hedgehogs.
Some preteens who come into our program are intense, but no matter the severity of their behavioral issues, it’s amazing to see them being gentle and kind to the animals. They sincerely value them and want a healthy relationship with them.
The hedgehogs also handle themselves well with the dogs. If they experience fear or feel unsure with the canines, they will just quill up. If the canine continues to pry, the hedgehog will puff in its quilled state poking but not hurting the canine. From then on it respects the hedgehog and learns what the boundaries and limits are. This dynamic between the canines and the hedgehogs has proven to be a valuable learning experience for the preteens.
"It's amazing to see the gentleness and kindness they give to the animals. They sincerely want to handle and treat them right.
When parents visit onsite and participate in parent seminars, their child runs the animal-assisted activity. That means the child is training the parents how to properly handle the hedgehogs and care for them. Once parents see how excited their child is with the hedgehogs and can see the therapeutic value in the experience, they are more willing to open their home to a hedgehog as their new pet.
It’s all about relationships.
It’s important to remember that animal-assisted therapy is designed to assist the therapy the child is experiencing. While the animals are meant to help, they aren’t our main focus—the preteens are.
The opportunity for students to care for and build relationships with animals is irreplaceable, but it’s important to remember that the magic wand isn’t the animals—it’s the relationships that are formed.
The ultimate goal at Calo Preteens is to build and develop relationship skills that can transfer to healthy human relationships. In addition, if the student is eligible they get to participate in an adoption process that mirrors the adoption experience which families go through when adopting a child. This creates empathy and a greater understanding from the child’s perspective that ultimately enhances their overall treatment and creates lasting change in a child’s journey toward healing.
"The magic wand isn't the animals—it's the relationships that are formed.
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