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Animals, Nature Offer Children a Fresh Start

Two special-needs schools help kids succeed using horses, dogs, sheep — even injured birds of prey

Writer: Beth Arky

en Español

By the time Brady entered Green Chimneys, a therapeutic school in Brewster, New York, he and his family had been on a treacherous and bewildering path for all of his 10 years.

Brady’s parents, Anne and Paul, say that their son, now 23, was a gentle and sweet boy, but his explosive meltdowns, starting as early as 3 months, had them fearing for everyone, especially Brady and younger sister Lynne. “He wasn’t deliberately violent toward people,” Anne says, “but he was wild and random. The potential for someone to get hurt was extreme. He had no boundaries or concept of the result of his actions.”

Soon Brady was scrambling onto kitchen counters, disabling the “childproof” locks, and hurling heavy cans of food indiscriminately. Anne and Paul emptied the kitchen cabinets and nailed the doors shut. To keep him from running into the street, they built a fence around their home. He pulled the gas stove from the wall, risking an explosion, and stood in the shopping cart and screamed curses. His meltdowns, coupled with the fact that he would move furniture over to windows and try to climb out, led them to strip much of their furniture from their house, including his room, which only had a mattress on the floor; they even removed the blinds for fear he would choke accidentally on dangling cords.

But there was nothing to do to keep him safe from self-injurious behavior. “Even when you controlled his environment,” Anne says, “he would hurt himself by chipping his teeth, poking his eyes, and banging his head. It was the last straw.”

The couple began a tour of specialists who offered up a litany of diagnoses, including autism, ADHD, and bipolar disorder, and prescriptions for everything from Ritalin to Lithium. Brady was doing better when, at 10, he had his first epileptic seizure, which permanently damaged his right arm. When his public school failed to provide his mandated services, Anne and Paul were able to get their son into Green Chimneys in 2001 and things started to turn around for him.

While most young children and their parents will never face such extreme challenges, Brady’s story is all too familiar to the staff at schools like Green Chimneys, which provides residential services as well as a day program, and the Children’s Village campus in Dobbs Ferry, which offers short-term residential programs to more than 1,000 children and youth annually.

Green Chimneys and Children’s Village, or CV, share common ground: Both are part of an innovative movement that incorporates animals and a natural setting into their therapeutic programs, offering a dramatically fresh start to children who truly need one.

Animals calm, teach kids

Founded by Dr. Sam B. Ross Jr. in 1947, Green Chimneys serves nearly 250 students, kindergarten through 12th grade as part of a therapeutic day program. Most are boys, between 8 and 15. Of those served 88 are enrolled in the residential program, which offers psychiatric treatment, including medication. Spread over some 500 acres on its two Putnam County campuses, Green Chimneys uses farm and wildlife programs as a key piece of the overall treatment model for children with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges, and diagnoses including anxiety disorders, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, PTSD and reactive attachment disorder; many of the kids were adopted internationally.

By the time kids like Brady arrive at Green Chimneys, they lack self-confidence and they and their families are stressed to the max, having exhausted other educational and therapeutic interventions, says Michael Kaufmann, director of farm and wildlife, who supervises Green Chimneys’ animal and horticulture programs. Because these kids have been through countless evaluations, the kids “don’t trust very easily,” he adds.

But then they spot the farm, the barn, and the wildlife rehabilitation center, home to 50 injured birds of prey, and it’s like no school they’ve ever seen. “Our role is to take about 300 animals, from horses to dogs to wildlife—not counting bees—and integrate them into the clinical and recreational life of students in our care,” he says. The animal handlers are part of the therapeutic team, along with psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists and social workers.

For instance, when students work in the tack room, everything is clearly organized and students are responsible for all their horses’ equipment, using it properly and putting it back where it belongs.

Working with animals also offers some surprising ways to teach social skills. Kaufmann demonstrates one exercise in which he shows students a large board with sketches of five horses’ heads, each with a different expression. Asked to pick out the angry horse, two visitors chose one with its head down before one changed her mind: “No, it’s the one with the mean-looking eyes.” She was right to choose that picture but had picked up on the wrong sign. It was the horse’s laid-back ears, not eyes, that said “equine anger.” The quiz is a strong reminder of how hard it can be for these kids to read people’s emotions based on facial expression and even body language.

Helping animals helps kids feel competent

Kaufmann says there are a couple of key reasons for Green Chimneys’ success, the first being that “these kids, who are used to being the centers of concern and cared for by adults, can become these animals’ caretakers. They love being useful and involved in that way.”

He also notes the metaphor of each of the animal areas. “The goats, sheep, and rabbits all have names, they’re fairly gentle, and you can cuddle and pet them, which a lot of kids look for in animals.” The bird center offers a stark contrast to the fuzzier animals, and an important message. “Wild animals aren’t ours,” Kaufmann says. While the goal is to rehabilitate and release them back into the wild, many, like the blind owl with the broken beak, will live out their days in captivity, unnamed out of respect.

“The birds also illustrate that they can be healthy and strong despite a disability or injury,” he adds. They have “claws and beaks and they don’t need people in the same way, which suits children and teens “who are more at a distance. A lot of kids on the spectrum don’t particularly like physical contact.”

Kaufmann notes that animals teach just by being who they are: “Let’s say a little kid needs to catch a donkey in a halter. If the child runs full speed, the donkey runs. They learn that if you want to get the donkey, you have to calm down…take a breath…walk more slowly. Suddenly, a child who has a hard time doing that can start working on their skills because the motivation is there. They can see in the donkey if what they’re doing is working or not working.”

Animals don’t judge

Brady was one of the children who gravitated toward the safer, gentler animals. “First, it was a prairie dog that eventually became sick and died,” Anne says. “Then there was a large rabbit named Gobbles.” Brady was initially afraid of the horses, “but after walking a miniature horse, the staff built up his confidence and he was able to do therapeutic riding, which helped with his motor skills and coordination.”

The animals at Green Chimneys helped Brady build his confidence and enabled him to enjoy school for the first time. “They calm him,” his mother says. “He never really had friends. They were his friends. While he was taking care of them, he opened up. He loved going to the farm; that was his favorite job.”

His new placement also worked because Brady fit in. Instead of the bullying she says occurred at his old school, Green Chimneys has a zero-tolerance policy. “The students accepted him, where at the public schools he was excluded,” Anne says. “As a result, he had friends and was able to play sports for the first time. Green Chimneys kept him mentally healthy, relaxed and not shut down, so he could learn.” Another bonus: “His seizure activity went way down.”

Training animals teaches kids, too

Along with helping calm and teach students, animals play a big role in another of Green Chimneys’ overarching initiatives: vocational training. Kaufmann says that while no one is forced to interact with the animals, the vast majority do. Other opportunities include working on the school’s organic Boni-Bel Farms; students sell the fruit, vegetables, honey, and maple syrup produced there. There are also 4-H and culinary programs available.

Students also have a chance to train dogs that will assist the disabled. The program is done through ECAD (Educated Canines Assisting With Disabilities), founded by Lu Picard, an obedience trainer who saw how much dogs helped relieve both her young special-needs daughter’s stress and her elderly father’s depression after a stroke. She started at Green Chimneys, with its founder Dr. Ross as her first client, in 1997. Picard now has contracts with five residential treatment centers.

Green Chimneys is the first in the training chain, taking puppies that were bred to be service dogs. Students train the young dogs for the first year, teaching them 80 commands for skills such as opening a refrigerator and fetching a soda for their disabled owner with their large, soft retriever mouths. “Some of our kids who are challenging in class have made a commitment to keep it together for the couple of hours’ of dog training,” Kaufmann says.

When the dogs have finished the first phase of their training, they may move on to the Children’s Village, which has about 150 youth in its residential treatment center less than an hour south of Green Chimneys. That number “includes foster kids with high behavioral challenges, kids involved with the justice system serving an alternate to detention sentence, and kids in the Jackson crisis residence,” says Topher Nichols, CV’s senior communications officer. While the average stay in the residential treatment center is seven months, the Louis Jackson Rapid Intervention Center is a 30-day program, more restrictive than most units at CV, that is an alternative to hospitalizing children with psychiatric illnesses whose behavior may put them or others at risk. It is also where much of the animal assisted therapy takes place.

“There are kids who won’t talk to any of the staff but will spend time with dogs,” says Avril Lindsay, who directs the program. “They’re nurturing. They’ll respond to a kid, give kisses. And the kids love the reinforcement they get from dogs.”

She tells the bittersweet story of a boy who couldn’t go home for Christmas; his brother was in a foster family and he wasn’t welcome to join them. The boy lay on his belly, nose-to-nose with a therapy dog, and talked her through “missing” the holidays. What he said “exactly paralleled what he was feeling about not going home,” Lindsay says. “It was as if he counseled her into feeling better about his situation. It was amazing.”

Kids rely on dogs for calming strategies

Lindsay has six dogs working with kids full time, responding to crises and engaging them in therapy and recreation. Many of the kids have had no positive experiences with dogs, she notes. “Their only exposure prior to CV may have been via gangs and drugs. But they’ll leave saying, ‘I’m afraid of dogs but not these dogs; therapy dogs are so gentle.’”

And when kids put together their own strategies for coping when they return to the community, “most choose the dogs as something to help them calm down,” Lindsay says. “Dogs don’t judge or respond to how they look when they’re in crisis.”

The dogs also teach foster kids about family dynamics. “Some of our kids have never had a birthday parties,” Lindsay says, “never had a present.” So for her Golden retriever Blondie’s third birthday, they spent a whole week planning the party. They made Blondie a birthday crown out of construction paper and invited her mother, Ruthie—who still works on the campus—and three of her kids. The human guests included eight students, 5 to 17, and about as many staff members, who also seek out the dogs as a way to de-stress.

One student, Anthony, was so motivated by the dog training that he got up at 4:30 am and spent two hours each way, taking a bus and three trains, to get back and forth from his foster home in Queens to CV during the special-needs school bus strike in New York City. When he was first picked to participate in the program, he “was actually terrified of the dogs,” he said. But by the second year, he felt it was such good experience, he volunteered.

“Dogs and the unique ways they learn are awesome,” he says. “I get to teach and they can help people with disabilities in their day-to-day life. Sometimes when you teach the dogs, you teach yourself. I feel like I’m doing something important, giving back by helping the veterans.”

Hopeful outcomes

Anne and Paul report that Brady, who continues to live at home in an apartment with a separate door, remains socially awkward and still has difficulty organizing and managing time. But during the two years he was transitioning out of high school, he earned two technical degrees and held down a part-time job in a movie theater, then graduated with a New York State Regents Equivalency Diploma. He even became an Eagle Scout. He’s also a member of the family’s church.

And the vocational training has paid off; he has a full-time union job, where he makes a reasonable wage, has full benefits and paid vacation, and has passed exams to qualify for a promotion.

As for Anthony, the 17-year-old has picked out a career that will play to his new strength, thanks to his dog training experience at CV. He’s motivated to study and do well on his Regent exams so that he may attend college and become a police officer with—what else?—the canine unit.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.