If a tiny 6-year-old Yorkie-Poo therapy dog named Dorothy Rae can capture the hearts of the inmates at the Platte Valley Jail, Sylvia Stribling just imagines what she can do with middle school kids.
"These guys were big and gruff and I've got this one little dog named Dorothy Rae; she's tiny," Stribling said. "Nobody wanted to work with her. They wanted the German Shepherd or the Doberman."
Stribling, owner of Loveland-based Caring Canines therapy dogs, regularly works at Platte Valley Jail with 18- to 21-year-old inmates. They have had success at the jail with those younger populations.
"Once they met Dorothy Rae with her spunky little personality, now she is on the waiting list to work with them," Stribling said.
Caring Canines has had success working with traumatized children and children with cognitive and physical disabilities in those districts, she said as well as with nursing homes, assisted living memory care and battered women's shelters.
She's hoping to expand that success now at Fort Lupton Middle School, where she and her dogs will aim to help the kids. Her program aims to teach them several types of skills such as focusing, following directions, making eye contact, asking questions, listening, problem-solving and offering praise all while building empathy, patience, self-esteem and confidence. And there's a lot more.
"We can take the characteristics of animal-assisted therapy, then with actual empathy, they learn to focus and follow directions," Stribling said.
Stribling said she has been in assistance therapy for over 19 years and became interested in the therapy dog program. She had an old Great Dane to train with, but he was too old. So, she improvised.
"I got a young dog to learn about assisted therapy. It's how I got started with the Caring Canines," Stribling said.
Stressful time for kids
Stribling said the uncertainty and isolation that came with COVID-19 and the lockdowns have shown the need for therapy dogs with kids.
"Some kids come from situations where is not enough love, or there are drug and alcohol abuse problems," Stribling said. "There were some of the kids who came back to elementary school addicted to drugs or alcohol. It gets worse each year."
Ryanne McIntosh, Fort Lupton Middle School Counselor, suggested bringing the Caring Canines into the schools last fall.
"It's kind of pilot program at the middle school to see how it goes and then hopefully being able to get the program into the other school next year as well," McIntosh.
First, they brought a little therapy dog named Niko, a Cavapoo (King Charles Spaniel mixed with a Poodle) to work with one particular student. Mcintosh said that the child has shown tremendous growth working with Niko.
"I've seen from him carrying it into other classes and the activities that he's involved in and being able to see his assertiveness come out with a little bit more confidence," McIntosh said.
McIntosh selects the student for the program. So far, they have two working with therapy dogs.
"I tried to get others, but it didn't work out, getting permission slips back from the parents," McIntosh said. "But we've got two in the program right now we are hoping to build on that next year, to get even more students involved in it," McIntosh said.
McIntosh said the Caring Canine team puts together specific activities tailored to each student, designed to help them meet the specific goals themselves and for the dogs.
Stribling said these kids had so much going on in their lives, and they needed unconditional love. It's what the dogs, the volunteers, and the counselors offer.
"They have been judged too harshly by their family, peers or teachers and don't need to be judged, judgment at school can be stressful," Stribling said.
Niko is working with another student who has anxiety.
"It's great to see. The relationship built between them has been absolutely amazing. The confidence that he has built has been incredible. It was an opportunity for gratifying love between (the student) and the dog with an instant connection," McIntosh said.
Passion for people, love for dogs
Tracy Starr, a volunteer with Caring Canines for nine months, brought Niko to teach the student how to train a dog.
"The therapy dogs come in trained with a few commands, and then he learned the command and has taken the lead," Starr said.
"It really makes me excited and happy to work with Niko," the student said.
Starr said she always had a passion for helping other people, and she loves dogs and had a couple of dogs that would be good therapy dogs and decided to go for it.
"My mom had Alzheimer's and she has since passed away. It was a way for me to go into the facility and help other people with Alzheimer's. I'm a teacher myself. I've seen how dogs can affect kids and make them happy and calm them down," Starr said.
Show and tell
Stribling said after a child works with the dog for an extended period, typically for the semester or the entire year, if the child's progress is enough to return to their classroom, they can bring somebody else into the program.
"Hopefully, at the end of the time period spent working with the dog, they'll go back to their classroom and put on a performance of what they've learned with the dog for their classmates or their favorite teachers, the office staff, and their parents or guardians, "Stribling said.
"It's all about building confidence, learning self-control, learning how to talk in a commanding way, not in a mean way. Assertiveness," she said.
Stribling said students usually work with one dog for 30 minutes and then move to another dog. That's because the dogs tend to reflect the emotions the children are feeling.
"We don't ever work our dogs for more than an hour because they pick up on all the stress and emotions the kid has," she said. "They also pick up on all the joy, but there's not a lot of joy in some of these kids' lives."
Caring Canines has 33 full-time volunteers and about 40 more are expected to finish their training by the end of the summer. They have about 80 volunteers in Fort Collins.
"We're so happy we have the program and honestly cannot wait for next year. We're talking this morning about how we want to get more students involved in it. There are other students in our district that could greatly benefit from it, " McIntosh said.
For more information on Caring Canines or volunteers, call 970-646-5019—email email@example.com. Visit the website at https://caringcaninescolorado.org/contact.