By Hugh C. McBride

Copper Canyon Academy is going to the dogs – and the school’s staff and students think that’s a pretty good place to be.

One of the nation’s premier therapeutic boarding schools for girls, Copper Canyon Academy has been widely recognized and commended for its innovative and successful equine therapy program. As the program’s website indicates, working with horses allows for considerable growth and development, even among girls for whom other therapeutic efforts have been less than successful:

The animals in the program serve as co-therapists, providing unconditional positive regard, setting firm boundaries, testing students’ boundaries, and providing students with an opportunity to learn to empathize with, nurture, and care for others.

Animals don’t lie, manipulate, or cheat. They are direct in their communication and they respond to direct and clear communication from others. As students work with the animals, they begin to realize that lying, manipulating, and cheating don’t work; they begin to form bonds and to expand their horizons beyond themselves.

This program is especially valuable to younger students, students who have a history of not responding well to traditional “talk therapy” and to students with attachment/bonding issues. It can also be “a way in” with students who are simply oppositional and resistant.

But horses aren’t the only four-legged therapists on the Copper Canyon campus: A small-but-growing program that partners students with dogs is also meeting with considerable success.

Comfort & Familiarity
Susannah Fox, the lead therapist at the school’s Sycamore House and the leader of the canine therapy effort, says the dog program offers an enticing alternative to students who may be hesitant about working in and around the stables. “Many girls feel more comfortable around dogs than they do around horses,” Fox said.

With dogs being such popular family pets in the United States, Fox said, merely being in proximity to the animals can have a calming, touch-of-home effect on individuals who may be hesitant or uncomfortable in a more traditional clinical setting.

“Sometimes I’ll bring one of my dogs with me when I’m conducting a family counseling session,” she said. “When family members are petting the dog and talking to each other, they don’t feel like they’re in a therapist’s office anymore.” For families that are fond of the animals, she said, the dogs’ presence and their ability to distract, amuse, and offer affection can help diffuse tense moments, elevate the mood in the room, and improve the experience for all participants.

Though the dogs serve in more of a secondary, supportive role in the sessions that are conducted in Fox’s office, they move to the forefront in the canine-assisted therapy program that she has been developing at Copper Canyon.

Teaching Without Judging
Working together in a large grassy area, the students who participate in the canine therapy program start by observing the animals. Watching the way that the animals interact with each other, Fox said, usually leads to discussions about how humans establish – and, in some cases, violate – personal boundaries. It also allows the girls to develop a level of familiarity with the animals while keeping a safe and non-threatening distance.

Eventually, the girls begin to interact with the dogs – talking to them, petting them, and attempting to teach them simple commands. Throughout their sessions with the animals, Fox said, the girls begin to realize that the animals don’t hold grudges, or judge them based on previous experiences. “The bottom line is that animals are always in the present,” she said.

As the girls first acknowledge, then embrace this state of mind when working with the dogs, they are developing an essential life skill: being able to let go of past disappointments and focus more on current opportunities for growth and development.

Having success with the animals can help boost a student’s self-esteem, Fox noted, but failing to get the dogs to do what the students want them to do can be just as valuable. “The animal is going to mirror the emotions the girls are expressing,” she said, noting that the girls soon learn that their ability to control their own anger, frustration, or aggression will result in the animals becoming calmer and more agreeable.

Paul Taylor, Copper Canyon’s executive director, said that participating in the canine program has been a “tremendous healing experience” for many of the school’s students.

“The canine program helps therapists connect with girls that we haven’t been able to reach with other efforts,” Taylor said. “When the girls make connections with the dogs, it helps them to put their own behaviors and their own decision-making processes into perspective.”

‘It Can Be Magical’
When dealing with animals that are unpredictable, occasionally disobedient, and sometimes downright defiant, the girls have an opportunity to see how others might have viewed them in the past. And as they begin to notice parallels between behaviors that the dogs exhibit and actions that they or people they know have taken, they are able to see themselves in a different light. “The benefit is that there is this exchange going on between the girls and the dogs,” Fox said.

Though not as expansive as the school’s heralded equine therapy option, Copper Canyon’s dog program is making steady growth, and is producing excellent results, Fox said, adding that the effort’s successes give her hope that future generations of Copper Canyon girls will have even more opportunities to work with these amazing animals.

“These dogs and horses are the best therapists ever,” she said. “When the girls work with them, it can be magical.”

For more information about Copper Canyon Academy, visit www.coppercanyonacademy.com or call (928) 567-1322.