Home on the Range provides therapy.... With the love of animalsBuster and Zed are more than pets to the staff and children who live at the Home on the Range near Sentinel Butte.
By: Linda Sailer, The Dickinson Press
Buster and Zed are more than pets to the staff and children who live at the Home on the Range near Sentinel Butte.
The dogs are part of the ranch’s animal-assisted therapy program.
“One of the things that caused me to move to North Dakota, is I think animals have a very unique ability to be used in therapy we do with the kids,” Executive Director Jay Johnson said.
HOTR is home to 54 children ages 12 to 17. Within its ranch setting, it offers a safe environment to help children overcome challenges they may face, he said.
Coming from Kentucky, Johnson worked with the HOTR Board to develop a strategic plan to train service dogs for the Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation at Jud.
“We, as an agency, decided that as a working ranch in a rural part of North Dakota, we have access to animals — clearly it was a direction we needed to go.”
The ranch includes a canine and an equine component to its animal-assisted therapy program. The public will have an opportunity to witness demonstrations with the animals and to visit the facility during an open house from 3:30-6 p.m. Wednesday.
While the arena was constructed several years ago, the canine addition, conference room and offices are being finished this week. It was constructed with donations from fraternal and private donations.
The equine demonstrations start at 4 p.m., followed by the canine demonstrations at 5 p.m. Refreshments will be served.
The foundation at Jud provides the puppies. The children train the dogs with basic commands such as sit, stay, heel and down, as well as commands to pick up objects, open doors and turn on lights. When the training is completed, they are returned to Jud to be adopted as service dogs, said Johnson.
In turn, training of the dogs helps the children focus on issues in their own lives.
“It’s a very unique way to help the kids that come to our program — the animals are one of the things virtually all the kids love about Home on the Range,” he added.
Johnson appreciates the value and responsibility of caring for an animal.
“They are absolutely, completely dependent on human care for them — again it’s a lesson that stays with you forever,” he said.
Sarah Gubbels, licensed certified social worker, is the canine program coordinator and a therapist at the ranch.
The idea came from programs at New England’s Dakota Women’s Correctional Rehab Center dog-training program and the James River Correctional Facility, she said.
“They’ve had a lot of success with the programs; and while the two are completely different programs, both work with dogs,” she added.
The HOTR canine program started in December. The dogs are living in the dormitories, but it was apparent that a dog kennel was needed, she said.
Gubbels said Buster and Zed have different personalities.
“Zed is more cuddly — he likes to snuggle with the kids,” she said. “Buster — he’s more playful, he keeps the kids on their toes.”
While all the children at HOTR interact with the dogs, 14 children — seven boys and seven girls — handle them.
“We try to take kids we think have the capability to train the animals and follow through — that’s a big responsibility and they struggle, sometimes, with the expected work,” she said. “They are responsible 24/7. We break the week into different shifts, but we all come together as group once a week.”
The canine program is designed to teach the importance of structure, consistency and positive reinforcement, she said.
During group therapy, Gubbels teaches hands-on activities such as grooming, feeding and exercise.
“I didn’t realize how little it takes to communicate with a dog — I can give Buster a look and he sits down, that’s all it takes,” she said.
She believes Buster is nearly ready to return to Jud for final training commands. Zed is younger and will stay longer at the ranch.
Laura Feldmann, LCW, works with the ranch’s equine program. Horses are assigned to eight children.
“We’ve always had some kind of equine program, but we formalized the program in the last three years,” she said.
Feldmann and Gubbels were certified as animal-assisted program trainers through online courses at the University of Denver.
“We finished last October with a capstone project at Denver,” said Feldmann.
By interacting with the children, the animals, teach accountability, responsibility, putting others before self, dignity and service, she said.
During group therapy, the children may build jumps, cones and flags set up as obstacles along a course toward a goal. They may talk about their experiences and relate them to experiences in their own lives, she said.
“With animal-assisted therapy, it’s about metaphors,” she said. “The horses will mirror people — if a kid comes in crabby and fussy, the horse will be the same.”
Joni Brandenburg from the foundation appreciates the training the dogs receive at the ranch.
“Not only does the program help the kids, but the kids help us,” she said. “If a dog is not doing well, we’ll pull it and give them a different one.”
Last year, the foundation placed 10 service dogs with people having special needs such as mobility issues, seizures, autism and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
HOTR Development Director Jolene Obrigewitch encourages the public to attend the open house celebration.
“We’ve had great success in helping troubled children through the animal-assisted program,” she said. “We are very proud of our program and the facility.”