A 110-pound, long-haired dog with a big smile, a long tongue and impeccable manners produced many minor miracles his first night working with six boys in SaintA’s residential program.
Bullwinkle Moose, Moose for short, is a therapy dog who interacted with the boys under the supervision of his owner, Kay Bobb, and youth counsel Abigail Myers. He’s a Leonberger, a breed that originated in Leonberg, Germany, and is supposed to look somewhat like a lion. Despite his name, this dog is anything but fierce.
The evening, a meet and greet of sorts, consisted of the boys in two separate groups petting Moose, giving him treats and seeing how he’d respond to some simple commands. All of these boys have experienced pretty severe adversity and trauma in their young lives and are in the residential program as a result. They frequently act out as a result of the things that have happened to them.
With Moose, they were calm and happy and obviously really enjoyed themselves. The goal of the animal therapy sessions is to enhance interaction and encourage the boys to open up and talk and to get sensory stimulation from petting the dog.
This is the second animal assisted therapy group at SaintA. Because of the success of the first, which serves older boys, Moose was added to the team, to work with the younger boys from the Challenger unit. Moose’s “clients” are 7-10 years old.
The evening started with rules that include: only one boy should pet the dog at a time, ask “may I” pet him, give a treat, etc., and always be gentle, so Moose knows he’s safe.
In many ways, the messages that came through the rules and conversations were very relevant to these boys and their personal experiences. When told to say “Good boy” when Moose does what he’s asked, Abi reminded the boys of how, when they do well on a test, the staff praises them and how good that feels.
Kay told the boys, “Moose is big, but he’s sensitive. He doesn’t like to be yelled at.”
She also said that Moose is small for his breed. “He’s the runt, but we don’t tell him that, because we don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
Moose wears a Pet Partners vest to the therapy sessions. Abi asked what the boys knew about vests. They quickly made the connection to weighted vests they sometimes wear to help them feel calm and thought it was cool that Moose wears one, too.
At the end of the evening, Abi was almost in tears over what she saw with the boys.
“This was only the first night and their level of calmness was amazing. It’s such a rarity!” she said.
A boy who normally covers his face with his shirt was down on the floor smiling and petting Moose, Abi noted. Another boy who she described as being in a constant state of fight or flight did not get loud and really wanted to interact with Moose. A boy who used to be frightened of dogs was very comfortable with the gradual, quiet introduction to Moose. A boy who experiences hallucinations had none when with the dog.
The first boy to get down on the floor and bury his hands into Moose’s thick fur is a child who has been severely burned and bears the scars and disfigured hands.
“That was just so good to see!” Abi said.
As the sessions continue, Kay will share an autobiography of Moose that also will include things that are relevant to the boys’ experiences. For instance, Moose came to her after huge turmoil. She had to drive to a town near Joplin, MO, just after a severe tornado struck the area. Moose was separated from his mother and brothers and sisters and had to start a new life with a new family in a new place.
“This was all just so huge for the boys,” Abi said. “I can’t wait to continue our sessions with Moose.”