Pick-up Dogs How Two Rescue Dogs Save the West from Being Won

Pick-up Dogs
A visit to the Animals as Natural Therapy farm

Today I went out to the Animals as Natural Therapy (http://www.animalsasnaturaltherapy.org/) farm, which is about 15 minutes from downtown Bellingham. This is a place I have been meaning to visit for a long time as I indirectly mention the organization in my book, but I have yet to make it out to their digs because their monthly “Open house” has always taken place when I’ve been busy with some other task. But finally, I made it out and I am very glad that I did. I had a very enjoyable visit despite the winter weather.

When I pulled into ANT’s parking lot, I was greeted by one of their horses who seemed eager to follow me as I searched for their office. I don’t have a ton of experience with horses, which is something that I regret as a wannabe cowboy. Regardless, whenever I’ve been close to horses I’ve always been awed by their size and beauty. They truly are a majestic and powerful animal.

A few years ago, I would have been cynical with regard to this sort of therapy, thinking healing animals too “New Age,” but seeing the work my therapy dog Marcos does has opened my mind to the powers of animals in restoring the human psyche when all else has been rendered ineffective. I’ve made a lot of therapy dog visits with Marcos to psychiatric units and nursing homes, and I’ve experienced some miraculous moments that I describe in my book, but being overwhelmed with the presence of the horses at the ANT farm, I can see how horses can potentially have an even more intense healing impact on people in need of physical and emotional therapy.

ANT works with at-risk youth who may suffer from disorders ranging from autism or Asperger’s syndrome to anxiety and depression and those that have become “stuck” or treatment-resistant in traditional drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

ANT’s promotional video features several young girls who became addicted to hard drugs like heroin at a very young age (some as early as 8 years old), who lived with mothers who were in and out of prison and fathers that weren’t present at all. Commonly, these girls had self-esteem issues, which resulted in “cutting” or self-mutilation. When all else failed, learning to be human with an animal healed them. As one of the girls remarked, “We’re all the same, humans and animals. We just come in different forms.” A number of ANT’s graduates are now working as nurses or psychologists.

What animals bring to all of us is a healing reciprocity. Animals, especially those that are dependent on their humans like horses and dogs, require us to be totally authentic and genuine. My rescue border collie flat-coated retriever mix Lupe is incredibly sensitive to people’s behavior and is very picky about who she spends her time with and how she wants them to be. I can’t blame her. We don’t know, but most likely she was abused in some very nasty ways before we had her, and because of that, she is very wary of strangers. And who can blame her? When people are not sincere, she sees through them. How can she trust them? The horses at ANT’s farm also pick up on people’s emotions, which is why all of those who participate on the farm start by being totally honest with themselves and giving a report of their physical and emotional states. Once we can be honest with ourselves, we can be honest with others. And that is a first step in healing.

Animals also teach us positive control. When an at-risk youth has to look after another creature, like a horse, they learn how to take control of their own lives. They learn boundaries. The horses are very insistent and know what they want from those around them, and if you listen carefully to them, you know what they’ll want. Once we learn to appreciate the horse’s boundaries, we will also be able to better understand the boundaries in our own lives.

Animals also teach us how to love. Because once you’ve made your way into an animal’s heart, especially an animal that has experienced a tremendous amount of trauma like my Lupe, they will love you forever. And Lupe’s love is more real and more intense than most people are capable of knowing, much less showing. By showing us their love, animals teach us to love ourselves. By giving us self-confidence, animals show us that only when we are capable of loving ourselves can we know how to love others.

ANT helps rehabilitate youth who have been broken by drugs or whose families have been split up for one reason or another. Animals have been able to heal these broken youths just by being themselves. And they teach us that when we act sincerely and with genuine spirit, we can live in powerful ways.

One of ANT’s coolest programs is an intergenerational program in which graduates from their programs work with senior citizens. Spending time with our elders is an activity that I strongly endorse, as they always have something to teach us.

I brought a copy of one of my books to ANT as a gift to leave for the wonderful ladies who have run the farm for the past 14 years, Sonja Wingard and Lorna Shepardson. With the winter weather coming in full force and a strong wind blowing, the kids weren’t able to ride the horses, so the farm’s volunteers asked me to tell some of the boys about my book. I began telling them about the book and a 13-year-old boy asked me how long it was and how long it took me to write it. He had a hard time believing that he was speaking with someone crazy enough to spend over a year writing some 170 pages about the wild adventures he had with his dogs. The boy told me he wanted the book. And what can I say? I had to give him a copy of the book. It’s nice to have a fan. He told he wanted to read it and couldn’t wait to finish it. And I sure hope he does.

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