Students as dog whisperers
When life’s traumas set in, Miles and Oscar are kids’ best friends
With a helping paw, Miles and Oscar have reached out to more than 100 area elementary school children, and the furry 100-plus pound beasts couldn’t be happier.
Licensed animal therapy dogs, Miles and Oscar helped calm Trent Davis when he was an out-of-control third-grader. The dogs were friends, and they didn’t judge him, said the now 14-year-old.
“When I was with the dogs, they didn’t treat me unfairly,” Davis said. “They liked being with me. It was really nice.”
With the help of his friends — Miles, an 11-year-old giant, but tender black Labrador mountain dog mix; and Oscar, a curious 9-year-old pure chocolate lab – Davis said he’s able to better control his anger today. He doesn’t explode anymore.
“I haven’t had any outbursts, or whatever you want to call them, in a couple of years,” said the Montezuma-Cortez High School freshman. “And I’ve made the most friends ever, six or seven just in this first quarter. That’s more friends than I had all of last year.”
By the time he was 10 years old, Davis said he was on the brink. He had pushed desks over, ripped books apart, smashed classroom windows and demolished a principal’s office. The police were called. Then he got expelled for the third time.
For Davis, it was difficult to control his emotions. He would lose his temper over the smallest incident, especially if he thought he was being underhanded.
“Certain things would just cross the line, you know,” Davis said. “If I didn’t get what I wanted, then I’d go over the edge.”
As Davis’ classroom teacher at the time, Jessica Spencer witnessed Miles’ and Oscar’s impact first-hand. She described the interactions as “immediate incredible changes.”
“With the dogs in the room, students calm down instantly,” she said. “The kids relax.”
“Even students in all-out, full-blown tantrums: the dogs are able to de-escalate the situation within minutes,” she continued. “It’s an extremely effective tool.”
Owner of Miles and Oscar, Mark Holton is one of the community’s biggest advocates for kids in trauma, and he’s able to achieve consistent results, said Spencer, who now oversees the animal-assisted counseling program for the Montezuma-Cortez School District.
“Mark is a very positive face for those kids who don’t have much of anything positive in their lives,” she said.
Offering a unique, specialized therapy, Holton said most students form instant connections with his tongue-hanging, tail-wagging friends.
Based on proven cognitive behavior therapy techniques, his aim is to aid children suffering from trauma, and Miles and Oscar are there every step of the way.
“I call it cognitive behavior animal-assisted therapy,” Holton said.
“The kids learn to build trust,” he explained. “They learn to attach to something. They learn to nurture. They learn to be responsible for something.”
Educated at the University of Dayton in Ohio with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and the University of Santa Monica with a master’s degree in counseling psychology, Holton saw the power of persuasion via pets after launching a previous dog-exercising venture.
He remembered it was odd for complete strangers to hand over house keys and security codes within 15 minutes of meeting, all because they trusted him as a dog handler.
“Seeing how quickly that trust was garnered was the beginning,” Holton said.
Following the discovery of trust brought on by dogs, the licensed therapist decided to make a greater impact on society. It was a new venture, but he leashed up his dogs, escaped the drab office and set out to unleash children’s fears.
“Kids began to attach,” he recalled. “It worked great.”
After Holton trained the duo himself in just a couple of months, Miles and Oscar completed their Delta Society animal therapy certification in 2008.
“Lots of behavior reinforcement and treats” were required, Holton said, laughing.
That same positive reinforcement used to train the dogs is ultimately bestowed onto the children, Holton said.
He previously worked for a decade in a traditional clinical setting without Miles and Oscar’s assistance. Since, Holton said he’s witnessed children who suffer from grief and loss or are defiant and disruptive respond much quicker, simply because of the dogs.
“The success rates have really accelerated,” Holton said. “In a traditional clinical setting, sometimes it can take weeks to build trust. These are instant bonds.”
Allowing the children to give commands, like “sit” and “stay;” as well as brush and groom Miles and Oscar — a favorite activity for the animals — the kids learn they can rely on a consistent companion, Holton said.
For the past six years, he has visited local elementary schools with his dogs at least once a week.
“The kids don’t feel threatened by Mark’s friendly, furry critters,” said Montezuma County social services director Dennis Story. “They talk to the dogs just like they were talking to a therapist.”
That interaction helps enable Holton to gain trust and ultimately help the child work through their problems, Story said, adding that Holton is able to provide a level of support that might not otherwise be available in a traditional clinical environment.
“You just have to see it,” said Spencer.
Students with behavioral issues have often times seen traditional therapists and undergone a whole gamut of treatment options, but none compares to the effectiveness of the therapy dogs, Spencer said.
Without Miles and Oscar, she feels many children may never reach a point that allows them to have any educational success.
“A majority of the students who see Mark and his therapy dogs go on to do really, really well in school,” she said.
Spencer said the number of students with behavioral problems stemming from trauma-related events is on the rise throughout the school system.
The instability, for example, arises when children don’t know where they are going to sleep or get their next meal, Spencer said.
“That type of anxiety leads to the behavior problems,” Spencer explained. “It’s a serious epidemic.”
With no full-time counselors in the school district, Spencer said she could use another five therapists like Holton.
“We have a desperate need,” she said. “Our schools are struggling without counseling support.”
To help ease the burden, New Wings is a county-funded program aimed to help troubled and at-risk elementary students.
Typically, children are referred for any number of problems including anger, chronic disruptiveness, poor social skills, oppositional-defiant tendencies and other anti-social behaviors, which inhibit them from expressing themselves when they are frustrated.
“It’s a way to help kids fly and be free,” Story said. “We’re trying to give them new wings.”
Holton believes the problems surface because of a lack of attachment children develop in the face of trauma.
Those lost bonds; however, are ultimately replaced by the leash to Miles and Oscar, which serve as a new umbilical cord to greater life experiences.
“The love the kids were supposed to get, they finally get it from the dogs,” Holton said. “I can’t tell you how many times the kids have said, ‘Miles listens to me’ or ‘Oscar really listens to me.’ It’s pretty neat.”