The connection between humans and dogs has long been recognized as a powerful bond. Calo Programs is making the most of it with its exceptional canine therapy program for teens.
During the 12 to 15 months teenagers typically spend at the residential treatment center in Lake Ozark, Missouri, they have the opportunity to train golden retrievers and often build close relationships with them. This type of animal-assisted therapy helps these teens as they work to recover from traumatic experiences, including difficult adoptions, chronic stress, and inconsistent care from caregivers. It’s another way to form healthier relationships with others, which is a struggle for many teenagers.
Calo’s Canine Therapy: An Overview
Under the guidance of Jeanna Osborn, Calo’s animal-assisted therapy director, Calo has developed a canine therapy program that includes anywhere from 36 to 48 golden retrievers. This therapeutic approach provides a guided process for teen boys and girls to not only learn responsibility by caring for the dogs but also strengthen their mental health by building stronger interpersonal connections.
How the teens treat the dogs is key, as they learn how to carry the same level of care over to their human relationships.
In many cases, teenagers who complete the Calo program adopt the golden retriever with whom they’ve worked and built a relationship. These adoptions aren’t designed as a reward but as a means for teens to better relate to their pasts. Approximately 85% of Calo Programs’ clients — which include preteens — have been adopted themselves.
How Calo’s Canine Therapy Works
According to Osborn, the goal of canine therapy is transferable attachment.
“Our students will live and learn the CASA relationship model, take the skills they learned and put them in their toolbox for life, and use the skills learned with the canines in their healthy human relationships,” she said.
“CASA” refers to the CASA Developmental Framework, a unique and proprietary process of creating a therapeutic relationship. The model is used at Calo to help form healthy relationships between the teens and their golden retrievers, preparing the way to then form healthy, secure relationships between the teenagers and their caregivers. This is accomplished by teaching the four components of CASA: commitment, acceptance, security, and attunement (also known as empathy in action).
“It’s basically our recipe for relationship success,” Osborn said. “So, we practice the CASA framework in our relationship with our clients, and then we ask our clients to practice it in the relationship they have with the dogs.”
Ultimately, this approach enhances the overall healing process. By including dogs in therapy, Calo clinicians can gently guide teens to be more receptive to treatment.
For example, teenagers who are shut down or close to struggling emotionally or physically — or both — may react negatively or withdraw if an adult attempts to engage with them, but they’ll typically begin to relax in the presence of a golden retriever due to its gentle, peaceful nature.
Over the years, Osborn has seen Calo’s dogs be so in tune with the teens that they’ll “tell on someone” who’s not eating or is engaging in another type of self-harm. If a teenager doesn’t eat and attempts to hide it, a Calo golden retriever will often also stop eating and lose weight. If a teen is engaging in self-harm, the dog may try to lick the injuries and even alert others to what’s happening.
Calo is not alone in seeing benefits from animal-assisted therapy. The effectiveness of using animals — including dogs — to help people heal has been well documented over the years. For example, according to the UCLA People-Animal Connection, an animal-assisted therapy and activity program, research has shown that this type of treatment offers mental health benefits, including lowering anxiety, providing comfort, and reducing loneliness.
Life After Calo’s Canine Therapy: One Teen’s Experience
One teen who’s benefited from Calo’s approach is Tyna, who adopted his therapy dog, Max, upon program completion. Thanks to learning about canine behavior and forming a relationship with his golden retriever, Tyna is better able to understand human behaviors.
Tyna said he appreciates that Calo’s golden retrievers look out for their caregivers just as much as the caregivers look after them.
“If my stomach’s not feeling good, Max will lay on my stomach,” he said. “He has this sixth sense in a way.”
Max is also good at alerting Tyna to worrisome situations where the dog senses danger or something otherwise unsettling from another person, whether they’re at home or out in public. For example, if Max gets a bad vibe from someone who comes near them, he’ll bark.
Calo Programs: A Closer Look
Located on the shore of the Lake of the Ozarks, Calo Programs provides preteens, teens, and their families with the opportunity to change from the inside out. Its animal-assisted therapy program includes not only golden retrievers but also hedgehogs, horses, and goats.
At Calo, youths develop a better sense of self and work on attachment issues as well as receive care for other mental health concerns, including personality disorders and difficulty dealing with and managing emotions.
Preteens and teens participate in individual and family therapy sessions with an assigned clinical therapist each week. Other program features include:
- Family member visits every four to eight weeks.
- Four annual events for parents, providing education and connection with other parents.
- Adventure therapy, which provides growth and healing opportunities through activities such as camping, bike trips, and a ropes course.
- Neurotherapy, a therapeutic approach that uses brainwave activity to help treat mental health issues.
Over the past 15 years, Calo Programs has helped more than 800 clients total overcome mental and emotional issues and heal. The canine therapy program has been a key part of Calo’s success, giving teens a sense of purpose, motivation, belonging, and drive as well as empowering them to form healthier relationships with caregivers.
The impact is clear in teens like Tyna. Max has helped him meet new people and more easily connect with others.
“Since Max has been in my life, he’s like the centerpiece of the home, the glue,” Tyna said.
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