A Child Sentenced to Anger: How Cheri Thompson's Service Dog Program Helps Teach Our Children to Love and Forgive
Children go through a tough time as they grow up. How they are raised becomes a major determining factor on who they will become for the rest of their lives. For some children, that could mean serious trouble if they are victims of constant bullying or have grown up with an abusive family. If they are not shown a better of life, they can either end up depressed or act this way towards others, believing such behavior is the norm.
Cheri Thompson, a law school graduate from the University of South Carolina, believes the best power of positive intervention comes from something that children could relate to on a personal level. That source, she has found, is that of the dogs she has rescued for the past ten years.
Thompson’s goals had first gained national recognition in an article issued by USA Today on September 29, 2011. The article spoke of several programs in other states similar to Ms. Thompson’s, in which dog-trainers bring in rescue dogs to interact with children in schools who come from abusive pasts. The children learn to appreciate and care for these animals while learning valuable lessons of love and forgiveness.
In the article, Ms. Thompson gave some incredible facts about her program known as The Healing Species, which she started back in 2000. The course is given over a 13-week period and each week features a one-hour training course. The results of the course has lead to fewer reports in bullying and violence, giving teachers more time to focus on teaching academics to their students rather than trying to break up fights.
According to the Healing Species website, Thompson gave up the idea of practicing law in order to create South Carolina’s first ever violence-prevention program endorsed by a state board of education. She was moved by her research showing the strong links between violence towards animals as well as towards the people of society. Her findings revealed two common patterns she found among offenders. First, more often than not, the offenders came from families who severely abused or neglected them as children. Second, they typically acted out on their own abusive nature by taking it out on someone more vulnerable than themselves, including animals. More information about the organization can be found at this site:
On October 31, 2011, WLTX conducted a video interview with Thompson and Adele Little, Director of Healing Species, to find out more details about how the program works. Trainers are brought into the classrooms with a dog that has a violent past. These dogs are cared for and trained by the trainers of Healing species, then taken to classrooms with students who have been victims of abuse and bullying. As the children become comfortable around the dogs, the trainers encourage the students to speak out about how they have been treated.
Beau is one of 12 dogs who is part of the program, who Thompson says she found “dumped on the side of the road.” Nursed back to health, he and his fellow canines have participated in numerous sessions, which have covered over 22,000 students in the Midlands since the program’s founding. Studies of the program have shown greater tolerance and control among students as well as a 55% drop in the rate of students suspended from school.
The program focuses on numerous life lessons for the students to live by, including love, compassion, and forgiveness.
“Anybody can pick on somebody. That's easy. The harder thing to do is to walk away," remarked Little in the interview.
WLTX Video Interview with Cheri Thompson and Adele Little
Today, the program continues to be an incredible success, spreading the message of love beyond the Midlands. On April 17, 2012 WISTV featured a report of students at Mellicamp Elementary in Orangeburg, writing friendship cards and recording a video of them singing “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King. The program is a special project conducted by Helping Species that will send the card and video to orphans in Africa.
"I think today's service project helps our kids to be more thoughtful to people that are less fortunate to them outside of our world," remarked Hayward Jean, principal of the school.
People can hurt us deeply and that hurt can last for a long time. This is certainly the case for a child, who is hurt through words on top of the physical pain. Between the two, the words are by far the worse. Cuts, bruises, and scars will heal in time. Words will play in your head over and over again and the sting is just as potent as the day it was delivered. We may think such treatment is just a normal phase of life whether we experience it at home or among our peers. But when does it get to the point where that part of our life goes too far? Is it when they deal with bullies, calling them fags or losers? Is it when they suffer slaps and belt wipes from a drunken father who cuts us down with curses? How are these children supposed to grow up and not feel anger towards others? This is the kind of upbringing that starts the child down the path of being abusive and aggressive towards others. They have grown up knowing only hatred and anger. These two destructive emotions are directed to them day in and out. It’s this vicious cycle that continues in future generations.
It’s easy for us to look them in the face and tell them that they are wrong for causing harm to others. However, we have to look at the world from their side of the fence. For them, their way of being raised is all they’ve ever known, so how they can see things our way? If words and common sense are not the final solutions, what other means do we have to help them?
Thompson’s approach using the true power of love through her dogs is truly a work of brilliance. Most of us would be in fear of owning a dog with a violent past. In fact, many would probably feel it would be more difficult to rehabilitate a vicious or skittish animal than a human being. At least with humans, you can use words to reason, but dogs don’t have that capability. They can understand verbal commands, but it’s not as if you can say to the dog, “Why are you angry?” If you did, it would simply sit there and do nothing or it would just continue to growl or cower. It wouldn’t give you a verbal answer. It makes us fear them and leads us to believe they are creatures without hope of showing love or accepting love from anyone.
However, Thompson knew there was hope. With constant attention and proper care, these dogs have been healed both on a physical and mental level. They see others around them as their allies rather than a threat. They once opened their mouths with growls and snarls, but now they display a smile with a wagging tale. They no longer bite with the intent to kill, but instead lick with the intent to love and spread love. It’s a true role model for us all: to show nothing but love and kindness towards each other even if we feel we live in a world where violence rules the day.
So if dogs without the ability to verbalize a conscious thought or adapt human reasoning can become peaceful and loving, isn’t it just as possible for our children to do the same? That is what makes this program so miraculous. It shows that no matter who you are or where you come from, you can be happy with your life again and you can be happy with others around you. Granted, this method is no silver bullet to ending violence among our children. It will not erase what happened to them, but it will help them to cope with their anger and live a better life without letting anger take control of it. These dogs could have easily been taken to a common pound either to be euthanized or simply to be locked away for good. Ironically, a child raised with such hardship can certainly suffer a similar fate.
Anger creates a prison for us all, keeping us locked away from the blessings that life has to offer us and can start as early as childhood. Thanks to Thompson and her loving dogs, these children now have the key they need to free themselves from this emotional prison.