New Zealand: Animal Assisted Therapy

The Nelson ARK (New Zealand) is one of the growing animal welfare groups developing innovative animal-assisted therapy programmes. I’m well acquainted with Pets As Therapy, Professor Paws, Paws for Progress but this was my first encounter with the ‘APART’ system. Animals, People And Rehabilitative Training provides young people (in need) with the opportunity to engage with rescue dogs helping them to learn compassion, empathy, respect and responsibility.

This Trust was founded in 2002. Qualified counsellor and charity coordinator (Karen Howieson) had interests in both mental health and animal rights. She joined forces with the teacher and mentor Susan Murray Rifici and incorporating Healing Species*, a model was developed for troubled young people and otherwise unwanted rescue dogs. Sue Walsh dog trainer and behaviourist joined the ARK in 2012.

Four courses are held a year. Small groups of teenage students are referred (school counsellors, social workers, mental health and support workers) to the eight-week course. During this time, students learn to train carefully matched rescue dogs. The aim is to get the dogs ‘adoption ready’ whilst the students learn about issues that may be affecting them – abuse, bullying etc. The dogs are brought to the ARK centre by their foster carers to take part in the training. The sessions teach students the value of patience, discipline and hard work. The young people learn co-operative and considerate ways of dealing with problems that may arise during the training which in turn, provide alternative coping strategies within their own lives.

The students are not allowed to adopt the dog they have been working with but are well aware that their input will increase the dog’s chances of successful rehoming. I spoke to a youngster (Brenna) who had completed the course the previous year and had returned to help out. I asked her about the bond she had developed with the dog she had trained. She told me that she would have dearly loved to adopt her but was aware of the rules from the start. She felt that this policy had taught her that

we can’t always have what we want

and had shown her how to part with her canine friend in a positive way. If the eventual dog adopter agrees, students can retain some contact. On asking Brenna if she could describe her feelings about the course, in typical kiwi lingo, she replied “awesome!”. She added that her self-esteem and confidence had developed and now (as a competent dog owner herself), she was much more able to positively interact with people. Importantly, she had made friends – something that had been missing prior to her time at the ARK.

There were plenty of such anecdotes from the team at ARK but of course, much welfare work can “feel good” but actually has little value. To ensure the time, effort and money invested in the project are well spent, the team carry out pre and post-course surveys using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. This questionnaire looks at strengths and difficulties and allows the monitoring of students progress towards goals. To date, the results have been very positive. APART at the Ark appears to be a transferable model and conversations have taken place about rolling it out into other regions. The cost to referrers or sponsors of putting one student and dog through the training is $3000 (NZ). The ARK subsidises this through grants, fundraising and donations. The Trust is constantly looking for corporate engagement. Should you be interested or wish to find out more about the APART or Healing Species, please contact info@thenelsonark.co.nz to discuss or make a donation via the website