Five months ago I was asked to bring a therapy dog to meet a young boy who was deathly afraid of dogs. Julian is on the autism spectrum and minimally social or verbal. His fear had escalated when neighbors moved in with three dogs. His fear went from anxiety to screaming and panic attacks whenever he saw a dog or thought about a dog. Trips to the park or even being in his own yard was becoming impossible.
Our first goal was to have Julian tolerate a small dog in the room. My Kirby was the first dog we introduced to Julian. Within a few minutes we had Kirby out of his stroller and Julian looking towards him, acknowledging a dog in the room.
I showed his therapist and the child’s mother how to safely greet a dog and how to present your hand palm down for the dog to sniff and Julian watched closely. Then we had Kirby lay down on his blanket near Julian as he played games with his therapist. Julian looked at pictures of Kirby and listened to his story. He said Kirby’s name and repeated some conversation about and to the little dog. He was still reluctant to get too close to the dog but I encouraged Kirby to lay closer and closer to him.
And then the moment occurred. Without fanfare or any anticipation, Julian reached out and touched Kirby. Just one little boy reaching out one little hand to pet one little dog. Over the next four months we continued to meet with Julian once weekly at the Therapy Center and invited him to join our weekly Reading with the Love Dogs. This additional hour gave Julian the opportunity to relate to other children as well as several dogs in a room at one time.
Julian experiences things differently and in unique ways. Through his work with the Love Dogs he has made tremendous strides in his language, comprehension, speech, attitude and sociability and of course his knowledge and respect for dogs. He is making choices and decisions on his own. If the dogs are too close, he can calmly back away. He can communicate verbally what he wants. He can make direct eye contact with the dogs, and with people.
Over the past five months Julian has met over ten Love Dogs and attends our Reading with the Love Dogs each week in addition to his therapy sessions. The integration of our Reading program has allowed Julian to work with dogs twice a week and expanded his world to include other children, adults and tons of stimuli.
This is what his mom has to say about their experience with the Love Dogs: “Prior to meeting Sue, our family would go on family outings such as camping, hiking, visiting parks and beaches. All of which were quite a challenge. If a dog was near, Julian became instantly afraid and a look of being terrified would come over him. He would either run away or jump off his bike, putting his safety in jeopardy. Since working with the Love Dogs, we now enjoy outings together as a family and we are all more at ease…especially Julian! And in addition to lessening his fear of dogs, Julian has since become much more verbal, confident and excited about striking up conversations, as he always talks about “his” dogs”
Our sessions with Julian will continue indefinitely and each week we change up the protocol to push Julian further and further, always utilizing the dogs as an essential element of his therapy. We now have a second client at the Therapy Center and anticipate as much success with this young girl. .So when people ask me “what do therapy dogs REALLY DO?” I will tell them about Julian and how through the healing power of the dogs his world has expanded and his future is less anxious and scary and more gentle and loving.