[Stories provided by Rebekah Chase Poling, Director of Volunteers at the Nelson Center]
“How does it feel when you pet my dog?” the therapy dog’s owner asks a little boy at the Nelson Children’s Center. “It feels good!” answers the young Nelson resident.
Dogs and kids … a match made in heaven. And nowhere is this more true than at the Nelson Center in Denton, TX. Nelson is a therapeutic living and learning environment for the healing and care of child victims of abuse and neglect. Most of the boys and girls (ages 5- 15) who live here are under the auspices of Child Protective Services. Because of their unique and often complicated behavioral and psychological challenges, the children have typically bounced from foster home to foster home before arriving at the Nelson Center. A history of neglect and emotional, physical, and sexual abuse leaves these kids scarred, angry, and feeling quite alone.
Art Masciere of Denton wanted to share his companion canine and best friend Cody with children who can’t have a dog of their own. Rebekah Poling, director of volunteers at the Nelson Center, thought this was a splendid idea. Art heard about Nelson from a friend who mentored one of the teenage girls there, and he and Cody began visiting regularly last March. So far, Cody has been a therapy animal for 23 children and counting. He is a five-year-old Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog (aka Red Heeler) that Art rescued 2 ½ years ago. Cody also spreads his love and charm at assisted living facilities and rehab hospitals, “but I think his favorite place is the Nelson Center,” says Rebekah.
Following in Cody’s pawsteps is Nelson’s second addition to the pack, Shelby the Great Dane. Bob and Nancy Voss and Shelby first visited the Nelson Center in June 2010. From the moment Shelby poked her wet nose through the door, she became a local celebrity. Her great size and wagging tail immediately drew the attention of both kids and staff to the new volunteer. It didn’t take long for word to spread through the four dorms that Shelby had arrived.
Since Shelby’s first visit, the “gentle giant” has been visiting with children in small groups for two hours every other week. She walks to the library with Nancy and waits patiently while children come to visit her, in groups of two or three, and pat her head, rub her belly, and tell her how their day is going.
When Shelby arrived at Nelson with several cuts and gashes (a result of trying to wiggle her way under a fence), her scars and wounds had a profound impact on the kids. “What’s wrong with her back?” “Will she get better?” and “Does it still hurt her?” they wanted to know. Similarly, Cody once came to Nelson limping with an injured front paw, and the kids responded with compassionate concern and gentle touches. These injuries presented great opportunities for the therapists at Nelson Center to compare the kids’ own emotional scars with Shelby’s and Cody’s physical scars, telling them that often wounds are visible and hard to understand, but they always heal in time.
The Nelson staff has noticed that even the most agitated and aggressive children become more gentle and relaxed in the presence of one of the dogs. Many of the kids have photos of themselves with the dogs posted on their bedroom walls, lockers, and in their journals.
What makes a great therapy dog?
A child therapy dog must have an outstanding temperament – able to get along with everyone, canine or human. But most important is that it just loves kids. Therapy dogs are trained in basic obedience, and must be able to put up with occasional fur-pulling and group hugs. Tests measure the dog and handler’s ability to handle stress, surprise, loud noises, and distractions.
Many of the children at Nelson Center struggle with anger, impulse control, and lack of empathy. Cody and Shelby teach them how to be patient, receive affection (and face licks!), and show compassion and gentleness in return. These tail-wagging mood elevators meet the universal need for physical touch, and by offering these young victims of abuse their unconditional love, play their part in building a bridge back to emotional health. I guess they call it “Puppy Love”!