TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – There is a saying that a dog is a man’s best friend. According to Rachel Howard, if a friend can be someone you can turn to when you need to talk, that saying very well could be true.
To test that theory, she and the Cherokee Nation are trying it out as a way to help adolescents combat drug and alcohol addiction.
Howard is an alcohol and drug counselor for the Cherokee Nation Jack Brown Center, an adolescent co-educational facility that provides treatment for chemical dependency in a residential setting to Native American youth. Howard and her dog, Lulu, work with youth at the center helping them overcome not only their addictions, but other issues as well.
“Animals are non-judgmental,” Howard said. “They want you to feel better. Petting and talking to animals help the kids open up. Their attitudes seem to be lighter and we usually get a better response during our counseling session.”
Lulu, a one-year-old English bulldog, is not just an ordinary dog, however. She, too, had to go through special training to be a part of the animal-assisted therapy program. She received her certification in Kansas City, Mo., in November of 2009 and is registered through the Delta Society, a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance human health and well-being through positive interactions with animals.
Howard said during a counseling session, Lulu serves as a comforting presence and will come to the patient and lay by them.
“She will get on the floor and lay as close to the patient as she can get, especially if they are upset,” Howard said. “Often, the kids will begin talking to her as if the counselor isn’t there at all. It’s hard for them to stay angry about something if she is looking at you. She really helps the kids with anger issues.”
Howard said many different types of animals are used in therapy, including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits and other small animals. Animal-assisted therapy has been used since the 1800s when doctors noticed patients seemed to heal better and more quickly when animals were close by. Animals are now used for different types of therapy, including physical therapy and occupational therapy.
Both the kids and center staff members seem to be in better spirits when Lulu is on-site. The staff often keeps treats on hand to offer when Lulu comes by to visit.
“She’s almost as good for the staff as she is the kids,” Howard said jokingly.
Director of Cherokee Nation Jack Brown Center Darren Dry said that to his knowledge, there was not another treatment center in Oklahoma or any other residential treatment center for Native American youth that offered this type of program.
“This type of program is new for us,” Dry said. “I’m excited for our clients to have another resource to help them. I hope this is something we can expand in the future.”
Dry continued by saying animals often feel compassion for those suffering or who are less fortunate, and that many of the animals used in this type of program come from local humane societies.
“Often, someone gave up on them, too, and that is how many of our kids feel,” Dry said. “It helps instill the compassion component in our clients.”