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Barking Mad, or What Dogs Can Teach Us About Youth Work

What can dogs teach us about youth work?

My name is Claire, and I am a Dogoholic. I seriously love my dog. I’m sitting here writing about my dog and I’ve got a smile on my face just thinking about his little face. I tell him at least 500 times a day that I love him (usually whilst kissing his nose) and I sing songs to him. Last night it went something like this:

“Now and then when I see his face

He takes me away to that special place

And if I stared too long

I’d probably break down and cry

Oooooooooohhhhhhh Oooohhhh Sweet dog o’ mine

Oooooooooohhhhhhh Oooohhhh Sweet dog o’ mine”

Or when out for a walk:

“I like the way you work it, no Doggity, I gotta bag it up”

Extensive research has proven the therapeutic benefits of spending time with a dog, ranging from improved mood and reduced stress to lower blood pressure and lower rates of obesity. Projects within the UK and abroad include using dogs as a therapeutic intervention for:

  • Victims of domestic violence, improving trust, confidence and self-esteem
  • The rehabilitation of offenders
  • Calming people with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)
  • Older people in care homes
  • Dementia sufferers
  • PTSD sufferers and people with other mental health problems

Despite my love of dogs, and my own personal experiences of the therapeutic benefits of having him in my life, I’ve never embarked (pardon the pun) on a project at work involving dogs. In past roles we have had occasional quiet days when colleagues have sneaked dogs into the office, or young people have brought their dogs in when passing, and this is what I have observed:

  • I’ve witnessed some of the radgiest young people I’ve ever worked with turn to mush when their mate has brought their dog into the youthie. The hard kid with the walls up who struggles letting people in is suddenly on his knees kissing and hugging his new-found, furry, four-legged friend.
  • A mute girl with ASD would talk to a colleague’s dog, but no-one else.
  • Dogs can be a conversation starter and break down barriers, especially for detached youth workers, and often steal the show. When doing detached youth work with a colleague who used to bring his dog, our success rate of making contact and sustaining contact with groups was much higher – they remembered the dog’s name, but not ours!
  • Dogs provide a huge source of comfort to young people who are experiencing trauma. At one work place when a colleague had sneaked in his ridiculously fluffy lap dog, a young person who was in the process of being taken into care found huge comfort in sitting with the dog on their lap, and actually commented that it was the calmest they had felt for a long time and it had stopped them from (in their words) “kicking off”. So much so, they asked when the next time the dog was in! Who needs youth workers, really?

What can we learn from dogs to make us better youth workers?

I never thought when I watched my dog bark at his own reflection in the window last night that I would be writing a blog about how HE could help ME become a better youth worker, but here it goes:

  1. Dogs are unashamedly seekers of affection and attention, and givers of unconditional acceptance and warmth. If dogs ran youth projects, every young person would be greeted with enthusiasm, energy, smiles and joy. This would invariable rub off on the young people. Humans on the other hand can be guarded, wound up and irritated, this rubs off on young people too.
  2. Stop rushing and pause to take notice. We stress about whether our projects are exciting enough, whether our clubs have the latest games console and whether we have enough equipment to keep young people occupied. Dogs don’t need all of that, they’re happy with grass to roll on, pee to sniff and a stick. Sometimes the simple things are the most memorable and we need to go back to basics, conversation, dialogue, nature and fun.
  3. Dogs forgive. If we leave them all day, or we shout at them when they’ve chewed our favourite Ugg boots, they forgive us immediately. If we have a bad experience with a young person, do we forgive without judgement, or are we guarded and biased in future interactions?

 

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