Monday, October 15, 2012

The Little Dog Laughed: Saving Women, Children, and Pets through Animal-Assisted Therapy

On Monday, October 15, 2012, at 10:30am I interviewed Linda D. Keast, Director, and Lead Handler of The Little Dog Laughed Animal-Assisted Therapy.  Tina Arth, President of the Board at Animal Aid, Inc, introduced me to her.  Tina is my soon to be mother-in-law, and I want to thank her for setting this interview up.  Thanks, Tina!

The Interview

Jennifer:  Okay, shall we get started?

Linda:  I'm going to be a bit clumsy at this (so) be gentle.

Jennifer:  I am timing this, going to keep it at 10 mins - and this is my first interview since high school, so don't worry about being clumsy.  You just answer everything to the best of your ability - and if there is anything you say that you would like "stricken from the record" just let me know.

Linda:  Gotcha.

Jennifer:  So first I want to say that I've taken a look at the website - there's a lot of literature available so I had a hard time coming up with pertinent questions to ask.

Linda:  The FAQ sheets would be new.

Jennifer:  And even though a few of my questions were answered, I thought maybe we could go into more detail.  It is a very thorough site and I am impressed with the amount of work and detail that has gone into it and the charity.  It's a wonderful thing you all are doing.  And quite interesting!

Linda:  And fun!

Jennifer:  Oh, I bet!  So my first question is... Can you tell me a bit about the Washington County Animal Protection Multi-Disciplinary Team – its background and how you got involved with them?

Linda:  The Washington County MDT was formed by Whitney Zigler (now Whitney Zigler-Kubli) of the DAs office, with enthusiastic support from Deborah Wood, the head of Washington County Animal Services. They brought together representatives from law enforcement, animal services, human services, and independent animal rescue organizations to address the well-documented link between domestic violence and animal abuse.  

Jennifer:  There are a ton of statistics on the website, would you mind going into that a bit for us?

Linda:  Between 18 % and 48 % of battered women have delayed their decision to leave their batterer, or have returned to their batterer, out of fear for the welfare of their pets or livestock.  In one study, 71% of pet-owning women entering domestic violence shelters reported that their batterer had injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control them; 32% reported their children had hurt or killed animals. 

In another study, 68% of battered women reported violence towards their animals. 87% of these incidents occurred in the presence of the women, and 75% in the presence of the children, to psychologically control and coerce them. 

The specific mission of the MDT was to cross-train animal services and human services personnel to look outside their own department focus - to take a wider view and act proactively to protect both the humans and the animals involved in any violence situation. This means knowing who to contact to report reasonable suspicions for example, in animal abuse cases, human services needs to be alerted to possible harm to human victims, and vice versa…

Jennifer:  Right

Linda - continued:  and getting BOTH the human AND the animal victims to safety.  My involvement was through my work with Animal Aid. Animal Aid not only helped the MDT build the first kennels at a domestic violence shelter so that dogs could be evacuated with their families, it also gives "safe harbor" housing for cats while the victims get stabilized.

Jennifer:  That’s great!

Linda:  To me, this left a serious piece of the puzzle out altogether - the children who had been exposed to this violence. The most statistically reliable predictor for determining if a child will grow up to be a violent offender of any kind is witnessing animal abuse as a child. What a child sees he is likely to repeat. Early intervention is critical. The ugly memories need to be overwritten by a much more compelling, positive view of human/animal relationships.

And I suggested what, to me, was a perfect fit:  introducing those kids to clicker-training therapy dogs. My viewpoint is the logical result of years of active exposure to Project POOCH, Delta/Pet Partners therapy work, SMART Reading with kids, and positive training methods like clicker-training.  Our dog/handler teams could teach the children life-skills via a novel method - with carefully structured classes on positive dog training. By actively being involved in the process, kids learn how to build empathetic, coercion-free relationships based on trust rather than intimidation. AND, of course, it's a total rush! The kids love it!  We named it STAR.

Jennifer:  And the MDT…?

Linda:  The MDT promptly took me up on developing the program, with all of us assuming that Delta would let us operate under their insurance umbrella. To our surprise, not only “no” but “HELL no.” Clickers, off-leash work, treats and training by the kids were specifically banned. Also by Therapy Dogs, Inc. Since we'd already lined up some pilot classes, I quickly formed The Little Dog Laughed, LLC to support STAR so that I could buy the necessary insurance. Since that time we've become a non-profit corporation, hoping this would facilitate grants, donations, recruiting, etc.

Jennifer:  Can you tell me a little more about what “clicker-training” is?  I’ve heard OF it, but never knew what it was.

Linda:  Clicker-training (actually, "marker-based” training) combines to totally different notions. One is that animals do NOT understand what we're saying -- they primarily use body language and scent.

Jennifer:  Right

Linda:  The clicker is a clear, never-differing signal paired with something the animal likes ALWAYS so that the critter recognizes it as a meaning "good thing". Based on that common first "word" the trainer builds a language unique to the animal and the trainer. Second concept: positive reinforcement - every living thing will repeat an action that rewards them. By clicking what we LIKE rather than punishing what we DON'T like, training becomes a highly enjoyable game for both the handler and the animal. Wrong moves are never punished - they just don't result in a reward.

Eli, being taught how to ride a skateboard by the youngsters at McKay Elementary.

Jennifer:  Great!  I love the idea of positive reinforcement... I try it on my cat, but so far it's not working all that well. Cats are stubborn, though.  It would be nice to see the MDT and STAR program branch out to other states.  Where do you see the STAR program in five years?

Linda:  There has been a change - actually, an expansion - in the target audience over the last year. Initially, the focus was on kids in a specific DV shelter (Monika's House). However they have been through four changes of management since this started, and have never settled down long enough to work us into their program. BUT! At-risk youths are not all at Monika's House, it turns out. They are identified by concerned professionals in elementary schools, in-group foster homes, in juvenile pre-adjudication holding facilities. My youngest clients are in a local elementary school. My oldest are teens in a Chehalem Youth and Family Services foster home - they spent the summer writing a script, training the dogs, and filming a video to be published someday on YouTube.

Jennifer:  That’s wonderful! 

Linda:  The hope of the MDT was to create and document a model program so that it could be picked up and used elsewhere in the country. I'm doing the same for STAR - everything I do is documented, why decisions were made, wrong steps, right steps, evolving focus, the works.

The MDT is a county-funded program, and STAR is not. I get a lot of moral support but zip for monetary assistance. And because we don't charge our customers (who are ALSO cash strapped) this is a bit of a problem.  If we can even cover our insurance expenses, I'm a happy camper.
Jennifer:  In the meantime, what are you doing to gather funding?

Linda:  Given that the served population is children and animals, you would think we'd be a shoo-in for grants. That said I find that I have no time to dig into this. The best I could do was use my personal connections with local businesses to, for instance, give handlers a discount on pet supplies.

Jennifer:  what can people do in other counties to get their city to pick up on the model?

Linda:  As far as setting up similar operations elsewhere, I'd say that information sharing is key. I'd welcome contact with other interested folks - particularly if they have therapy team experience.

Jennifer:  I'm just a lowly student with a blog, but I will do my best to get the word out!  Well, I have taken a little bit more of your time than I said I would - thank you so much for helping me out.  I will send you a transcript of our interview once I have put it all together.  And I'll send you a link to my blog

Linda:  You're very welcome - I'm glad you are active in this arena!

Jennifer:  I feel connected to your cause.  Thanks again, Linda.

For more information regarding the STAR program, please visit the Little Dog Laughed Animal-Assited Therapy website.


  1. Wow! What a great way to take an identifiable correlative/causative aspect of violent patterns and not only interrupt that pattern, but invert the a causative aspect to indoctrinate against the violence. Awesome!

  2. Yeah I'm really impressed with what this whole organization is hoping to accomplish.

  3. Clearly that's exactly what I call a great blog article! Do you this site for your private joy solely or you basically exploit it as a source of income?

  4. Hello and welcome! I would love to exploit it as a source of income - but no, I write this blog to express myself, relate to others, teach, spread the word and hopefully gain mass quantities of experience in journalistic writing. I do hope to one day use this as a sort of portfolio when I start applying for online news writing positions.

    Thanks for the kind words; I'll come check out your blog!


I will not censor anyone, but please, in the spirit of open communication and respect for others - don't be a douche bag, or else I will rip you a new one.