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Shelter dogs help troubled teens in a surprising way

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Find out how one researchers is helping teens with visits from shelter dogs.

George Washington University researchers have discovered shelter dogs can be a cost-effective therapy to help troubled teens in treatment facilities.

The dogs not only help teens recover from addiction, depression and other behavioral problems. The therapy is also good for shelter dogs, says Lindsay Ellsworth who is studying the effect of the canine complementary therapy.

For their study, researchers took dogs from the Spokane Humane Society on a field trip to Excelsior Youth Center.

Ellsworth, who is a doctoral candidate in animal sciences at Washington State University, organizes the trips each Friday.

When the dogs visit, the teens interact by brushing, feeding and playing with the dogs.

Ellsworth said in a press release, "We found one of the most robust effects of interacting with the dogs was increased joviality. Some of the words the boys used to describe their moods after working with the dogs were 'excited,' 'energetic' 'and happy.”

Each week the teens are split into two groups during recreation time. One group plays pool, video games or basketball at the treatment center while the other group spend an hours with the shelter dogs.

Before and again after the activities, the teens self-report their mood, using a 1 to 5 scale known as the PANAS-X which is used by psychologists to study emotions.

Many of the teens are also being treated for ADHD and depression.

Ellsworth said spending time with shelter dogs increased not only joviality, but their presence makes the youth feel more serene, less depressed and more attentive.

"I was surprised, during the trial period, how calm the boys were around the dogs and at how outbursts and hyperactivity diminished," Ellsworth said. "It was something you could observe like night and day."

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When the boys were asked what they liked most about interacting with the shelter dogs they responded it helps they keep their mind off things.

One boy wrote that he enjoys "giving dogs treats and showing a lot of love to the dogs".

Robert Faltermeyer, executive director of the youth center and the staff are supportive of bringing shelter dogs as part of the teen’s therapy, citing several reasons why it is positive.

Faltermeyer says dogs help in the following ways:

  • Dogs help kids who live a chaotic life focus on a specific activity
  • Empowers them to make positive changes even from the simple act of correcting the dog’s behavior
  • Gives them hope that they can change their lives

Ellsworth thinks bringing dogs to the youth center to help teens with drug addiction might stimulate dopamine in the brain – a ‘feel good’ chemical that is released from excitement, or anticipation of seeing the animals.

It’s also possible that the dogs can help restore chemical signals in the brain that drug and alcohol addiction can destroy.

Ellsworth said using shelter dogs to help teenagers rehabilitate from drug and alcohol addiction can be a ‘win-win’ situation that also benefits the animals.

"Any sort of activity that provides an opportunity for shelter dogs to socialize with humans and other dogs outside of the kennel environment is great, and that is the value that the shelter sees in these dog-interaction activities, too."

She believes animal shelters could easily implement these types of behavioral therapy programs.

This summer Ellsworth plans on taking the dogs to visit Excelsior twice a week to see what sort of impact the canines have on encouraging teens to participate and cooperate in structured group activity.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, more than 5 million animals end up in shelters each year.

The ongoing study, which is a first of its kind, shows how dogs can help teens in treatment center can recover from depression and alcohol and drug addiction. The novel treatment also lets shelter dogs interact with humans and other canines outside of a sheltered environment, making them more adoptable.

Image courtesy Washington State University