The child just stood and stared intently. He was four-years-old, larger than some of the other children, all six of them boys. He was attractive, with deep chocolate skin, large brown eyes and a solid build. They told me he was one of the more assaultive children. You could see from his stance that he was a child that had learned (so young!) to be ready for anything that might come flying at him. And he was assessing this enormous dog in front of him, lying quietly on the classroom floor, staring benignly back at him. I sat on the floor next to the dog, automatically answering all the usual questions ("Does he bite?" "Where are his teeth?" "Can I take him for a walk?"...) But this child said nothing, did not move a muscle, just stared at Chief (Denali's Chief Blackfoot, my eight-year-old Newf).
This was our first session at a facility for physically and sexually abused three- to four-year-old children where intervention was being used in a day treatment program.
I'll call the boy Alex, not his real name. We were just starting an eight-week pilot program to assess the benefits of animal-assisted therapy with these special and very needy children.
Alex continued staring at Chief as the activity swarmed around him, watchful teachers kneeling just behind the children. And as he stared, across his face came a look of wonder and (could it be?) joy. Alex approached Chief and touched Chief's nose with his finger. Then he stepped back and smelled his finger. Seeming to be satisfied, he approached Chief and sniffed Chief's nose. Chief's tongue came out and touched Alex's chin. The boy flew back out of reach. Then he approached Chief again. All this time Chief lay quietly, children all around him, staring back at the boy with his soft, benign expression. Alex suddenly threw both arms around Chief's neck and buried his face in the fur. When Alex came up for air he grinned at me, and promptly sat between Chief's enormous paws and leaned against Chief's neck, looking quite satisfied with himself. Shutting his eyes, Alex reached up with his hand and held it in front of Chief's mouth. He seemed to know that Chief would lick his hand.
Not done yet, Alex knelt in front of Chief and put his face right up to the dog's nose. Obligingly, Chief gave Alex's face a thorough washing. For the rest of the session, Alex sat with Chief, content to be surrounded by the big Newf.
Later, the teacher told me that it was not uncommon for these children to be disciplined by their parents with a nasty dog. If that were true of Alex, what a tremendous battle he must have fought within himself just to approach Chief. And what a tribute to the unconditional love that a dog gives so willingly and that a child can read so readily in a non-verbal way. I felt honored to be able to see first-hand how Chief taught a little boy to trust again, and at least for a little while, to feel loved and safe.
Chief, a certified Therapy Dog, lived to be twelve-years-old, and for most of his life he made weekly trips to various facilities dispensing his Newfoundland brand of loving and caring.