Animals Healing People & People Healing Animals

A couple of weeks ago I started working for an exciting new nonprofit in western Montana called the Arlee Rehabilitation Center. By “new” nonprofit, I mean both new to me and new as an organization. They started up during the pandemic lockdowns—a feat in and of itself—and have been growing steadily ever since.

They’ve taken on a huge task, and they’re smart enough to keep it very local so it’s not overwhelming. With a tight focus on the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, they are taking on the problems caused by trauma and stress among at-risk youth. Montana has the second-highest suicide rate in the country (barely edged out by Wyoming), and the Native suicide rate is five times the statewide rate. The population at highest risk for suicide is Native youth.

When children suffer from major trauma like abuse, loss of parents to incarceration, domestic violence, and the loss of close relatives to suicide, it’s often easier for an animal to get through to them than a human. Working as an animal rescue organization allows ARC to identify potential therapy animals and connect them with families that need them.

I’ve worked with nonprofits that help people and nonprofits that help animals. This is my first opportunity to work with a nonprofit that provides help to both and ties them beautifully together.

Arlee Rehabilitation Center (ARC) serves the Flathead Indian Reservation by providing a sanctuary where animals heal people and people heal animals. At ARC, victims of trauma find healing and therapy by helping rehabilitate neglected, under-socialized and traumatized rescue dogs and horses.

— ARC Mission Statement

They are currently preparing for one of their “Pawsitively Healing” summer camps, a week-long event aimed at helping Indigenous children deal with trauma and teaching them to work with therapy animals. Last weekend, they put on a spay-neuter clinic on the Reservation that processed close to 150 dogs. Their animal rescue operation placed 105 pets in new forever homes last year and delivered over 1000 pounds of pet food to low-income Reservation residents.

I could talk about their mission all day long, but as I told Executive Director Filip Panusz, a story is much more effective. Filip shared with me the story of a dog named Bogs, which I wrote up for a grant application we’re working on. I’d like to share that with you all today.

And if you’re interested in supporting this wonderful group, now is the time to do it! The Missoula Gives fundraising campaign is this month, and your donation can qualify for matching funds to be even more effective! Visit their page on Missoula Gives for more details.

The Story of Bogs

In the summer of 2022, an abandoned dog was wandering the streets of Arlee, Montana, hungry, skinny, and badly injured. He had been struck by a car—intentionally, according to one witness—and was dragging a front leg as he walked. Arlee Rehabilitation Center had been getting calls from people concerned about the dog, but the car strike turned it into a crisis.

Bogs, as he came to be called, had been judged by his looks. Just as people can fall victim to stereotypes, so can dog breeds like pit bulls that are branded as aggressive or dangerous. We, however, found him to be a sweet boy. We were able to collect him, take him to a vet, and start raising money for the care he’d need.

Unfortunately, there was no way to repair the injured leg. Amputations can be costly, but the Fox Hollow Animal Project agreed to perform Bogs’ amputation for free. As the days went by following his surgery, his physical healing went quickly. His emotional healing was slower. Wary of strangers for obvious reasons, he felt insecure and vulnerable.

After only a couple of weeks, Bogs was moving around on three legs fairly well. We decided that he might have potential as an ambassador, offering valuable lessons for the children at one of our Pawsitively Healing Summer Camps. Our Social & Emotional Learning themes for camp were resiliency, empathy, communication, relationships, stress management, and self-esteem. We could not think of a better dog to model all these themes for the children.

Bogs after the amputation

We knew we would have to create a very controlled environment, and we were not sure how Bogs would respond. Our initial idea was to give the kids a one-hour session, observing him from a distance and offering him a treat through a safe barrier. As we moved carefully through controlled situations, we recognized that we could do more. Bogs became a favorite fixture at camp, visiting the kids daily.
Children can do almost anything with carefully screened and licensed therapy dogs. These dogs provide amazing healing, but they can’t teach in the same effective way.

It was different with Bogs. Kids had to learn to read a dog’s body language, how to approach a traumatized dog safely and put him at ease. They had to be hypervigilant and responsive. They had to control their impulse to scream and run from the “scary” pit bull. They had to try to put themselves in Bogs’ shoes and feel what he was feeling and to understand why that matters. They learned how to properly handle and treat a dog and what the consequences of neglect are.

There was one more thing that Bogs taught our kids: a dog that might look scary to some might in fact have great capacity to love. Some of the children had come in believing that pit bulls are aggressive and dangerous by nature. At the end of camp, many of these same children shared with us how much they loved Bogs and how they were touched by the gentleness he showed them—despite the treatment he had endured. This is a lesson in love. It also shows the danger of human prejudice, something many of these kids can relate to.

The children at our camp had the opportunity to watch a dog with a disability and trauma history gradually regain his confidence and learn how to trust again.

With one of the kids at the camp

These are powerful lessons, especially because they can all be transferred to our relationships with other people. They teach us how to be sensitive to what others are feeling, how to tread carefully, how to adjust our behavior and expectations, how to control our impulses, how to feel empathy and provide care, and how to communicate what we are feeling, and why this is all so important. They teach us how we can overcome challenges.

Nobody could have demonstrated better than Bogs that it’s possible to pull through the trauma of abandonment, starvation, and debilitating injury—and still wag your tail.

A week after the camp, Bogs had a forever home. He still had a long way to go and a lot of wounds to heal, both physical and emotional. But now he had a loving family along with two dogs and a cat to share his life with. A few months later, his new family sent us an update: “He’s such a great boy. He goes to therapy at the VA with my husband. He’s quite the office celebrity. The veterans just love him.”

Bogs was one of over 100 dogs that ARC was able to adopt out in 2022. His inspirational story is just one of many that demonstrate our mission of providing a sanctuary where animals heal people and people heal animals.

In his forever home with his two canine companions

If you find ARC’s story as compelling as I do, I hope you’ll find it in your heart to visit their page on Missoula Gives, read a little more about them, and make a donation. It doesn’t have to be a big one. Every dollar helps when you’re dealing with a young nonprofit with a big heart and huge goals!

If you’re reading this after the 2023 giving cycle is over at Missoula Gives, you can still visit ARC’s website to find a donation page or follow ARC on Facebook for opportunities to help.

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