Healing Hearts with Wags and Licks
“Freedom”- Dogs With Wings, Handler- Leslie MacKinnon, BSW, RSW
I have to admit right off the bat that I am pretty biased towards dogs. Over my lifetime, I have owned several dogs, everything from a 125 pound German Shepard to the 7 pound Chihuahua I rescued just this last September. I’ve never discriminated against animals – I’ve also had numerous cats and rabbits. But there’s something about a dog. Maybe it’s the “pack” mentality, and from the second you bond, how they just know that you are theirs and that you look after each other. Maybe they read auras, and know just when rest their head on your lap. Maybe it’s their defining trait of loyalty, and knowing that even at your worst and when you feel absolutely unlovable, there is a cuddle and a lick with your name on it. But despite knowing how much love and peace a dog can bring into a home, I have watched in awe over the last 6 weeks as the presence of a dog has begun to transform my school.
It just so happened that we had a change in school social workers, and Leslie MacKinnon, who I had the chance to work with earlier in the year in a crisis situation, became “ours”. Leslie has quickly become a trusted resource not only for me as an Assistant Principal learning all about how to respond to kids in crisis and how to access outside supports, but for our teaching staff who work with those kids day to day. Along with her compassion and genuine interest in kids, she also brings with her Freedom. Freedom is a Dogs With Wings therapy dog. He is a big, shiny black lab who occasionally gives “drive-by” licks. Freedom wears a work vest, and when it’s on, Freedom is working. When on duty, he blocks out common distractions that most dogs would react to – loud noises, small children rushing up to his face, people calling to him, and (perhaps the hardest to resist) food. This allows him to appear calm and non-threatening despite being a great big dog. When the vest comes off, Freedom turns into an affectionate gentle giant. He loves nuzzling his head between your knees so that you pat his sides and scratch his ears, and can sniff out every cache of candy I have hidden in my office.
As Freedom has become a regular member of our school community, the students have come to understand that he is a working dog, and just like them, has to follow rules at school around how to behave. They know that when his vest is on, you are not to walk up and pet him, and when they see younger siblings or pre-school children rush up to him, they gently explain to them that Freedom is working and that they have to respect him by not distracting him. Leslie has been going classroom by classroom to introduce herself and Freedom, and explain how the two of them work in our school. Leslie tells Freedom’s story, and it is his imperfect journey to finding not only his place in the world but a “fur-ever” family that resonates with our kids who are struggling, whose futures are uncertain, and who feel they have a story to hide because they have no one to identify with.
Freedom was initially trained to assist children with Autism. He was acclimatized to the behaviors common among children with severe cases of Autism, and went through vigorous training to “pass” being a service dog. He was originally placed in the home of a 7 year old boy in Calgary. After 2 months, the placement wasn’t working out, and Freedom was pulled from the home. He ended up with Leslie who had applied for a dog, and is now a beloved family pet and therapy dog. As Leslie recounts the story of his failed placement in various classrooms, big eyes light up, tentative hands go up, and quiet voices say, “I’ve had to go to different homes, too”. And then he isn’t just a dog anymore. He is a living, loving, breathing creature that has the same story they do. There is hope.
In such a short time, Freedom has made possible a few individual victories with kids who haven’t been able to fully trust adults. His quiet comfort and floppy ears that listen patiently have opened up veins of emotion and truth in kids who no matter how much I tried to love it out of them, would not allow themselves to be vulnerable. The very presence of a dog has made going to see the school counselor much less frightening or overwhelming to students newly referred. Before, it was daunting for many kids to be plunked in front of a strange adult (and for some of our kids, one of many they are made to talk to) and spill your guts about what was going on in your life. Since Freedom has come to our school, students who had outright refused to see a counselor or who bristled when I mentioned the words “social worker”, have come back to tell me that “maybe it would be okay if they saw the school counselor lady after all”. Freedom is breaking down the walls kids have put up to keep more uncertainty out of their lives. He is making getting help safe and positive, not scary or embarrassing. He will lay himself at your feet and give you his uninterrupted time and attention – even if you have more bad days than most people, even if you don’t have the picture-perfect family, even if you look or sound different.
The effect of having a dog around has been wonderful for school morale. Faces light up as Freedom pads up the front walkway each week. Indeed, it’s not just the kids who are lifted by his furry presence and ready tail-wag. Teachers have come up to me and said, “I need that dog as much as the kids do!” And it is so true. There is such a burden of knowledge that teachers carry, knowing what social and emotional scars our students bear. It feels like too often, we work so hard to create a safe haven at school only to send our students back to turmoil that is out of our control. I look forward to him coming, too. As an administrator, there are unhappy conversations to be had with Child Services that we try to even shield teachers from. Once (despite high heels, a nice dress and a rather unladylike position), I found myself lying on the floor with Freedom in my office (vest off), stroking his velvet ears, my heart silently grieving for a student as Freedom placed his paw on my shoulder. An unsaid affirmation that I did all I could do, and that it was enough.
Freedom is helping to build a culture where not only is every person valued, but every person feels they have value. The students who go with Leslie and Freedom do not perceive themselves as being pulled out from class or having to go and talk about their feelings, rather, they “get” to go with Freedom, and Leslie just happens to be really good at knowing how to help or what to do next. Instead of having a secret to hide, they are the envy of their classmates to be with Freedom one on one. Freedom helps establish a safe atmosphere for kids to be real, and facilitates a trust relationship between Leslie and the student. The irony is that the dog is the conduit for a child to know that there are people to help them.
I don’t think there could be a more perfect description of Freedom than a “Dog With Wings”. He has been a wonderful blessing that came to us when need was most pressing, and has helped to bring healing and hope to hearts in need. Interactions with Freedom have become a shared experience among our staff and students that bind us together in compassion and the interest of taking care of each other. It seems like quite the feat for a single dog. Yet, for anyone who has hidden away their darkest secrets and deepest emotions, and then had a dog come and rest their head on your lap or lick a tear from your face, the healing power of a dog isn’t so far-fetched.