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Man's best therapist

June 2, 2011
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Canine therapy is central to Arkansas treatment program for young men

The founder of the Capstone Treatment Center residential program for young males in Arkansas never forgot about what the unconditional love shown by the family dogs meant to him growing up. Even on the most difficult days of a typical childhood, “I always knew the dog loved me,” says Capstone executive director Adrian Hickmon.

As a result, “There was never a doubt we’d do canine therapy here,” Hickmon adds. In fact, the pairing of residents with Labrador retriever puppies at the Christ-centered treatment facility founded in 2001 has proven to be an integral tool in client retention, relapse prevention and aftercare—the latter because individuals who graduate from the program take their dog home with them.

Capstone’s marketing materials highlight many keys to its success with canine therapy, from offering companionship to presenting an opportunity for the client to take care of something other than himself. One of the bulleted points in Capstone’s brochure states, “The dog is the best aftercare therapist of all time.”

“He never asks stupid questions. He always listens,” Hickmon says with a laugh.

Hickmon explains the dynamics of canine therapy by comparing it with the equine therapy used in some treatment programs. While in therapeutic work with horses the animal becomes a mirror of the client’s own emotions in the moment, he says, canine therapy is more about establishing an ongoing relationship with the animal.

Each resident (the center serves young males ages 14 to 24) receives a puppy within the first day or two of admission. All of the Labrador retrievers are American Kennel Club-registered, and there is no shortage of kennels in a part of the country that is a major duck hunting region. Hickmon says Labrador retrievers are used because they are loyal and intelligent and can withstand mistakes made by their owners during training.

The residents take care of their dogs in the early morning before starting their treatment day, then have an hour later in the day to bond with them. Hickmon says residents’ time with the dogs can be especially useful after the young men have processed traumatic experiences during their time in therapy.

The dogs are not allowed in resident cabins because of potential concerns about resident allergies, but there is plenty of room for them to roam on Capstone’s 42-acre property.

Hickmon says canine therapy’s effect on Capstone’s insurance costs has been less pronounced than expected. “This is not about dogs just running around on campus,” he says.

Capstone residents stay for an average of 100 days in the self-pay program, which specializes in Christian-based treatment related to substance and process addictions, trauma, and behavioral issues. Hickmon says very few residents fail to establish a strong bond with their canine companion.

“Whether it’s the 24-year-old with tattoos all over his arm, or the 14-year-old who hasn’t shaven yet, once you take away their audience and they’re alone with their dog, they all become 8 or 9 again,” Hickmon says.