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Healing Species

It is so amazing to us at LIFE+DOG to see the many ways in which dogs are helping teach our society. Each day it seems there is another study or story about an inspirational dog doing something amazing for the common good of people. Many times these dogs have been subjected to the worst in people, yet they seem to instinctually rise above their pain to help make the world a better place for all, especially children. In a time when bullying and violence among our nation’s youth dominate the headlines, there is one group, Healing Species, that is doing all they can to teach adolescents the importance of kindness and acceptance…with the help of some very special rescued dogs.

“The opportunity to love a dog and to treat it with kindness is an opportunity for a lost and selfish heart to be redeemed. They are powerless and innocent, and it is how we treat the humblest among us that surely determines the fate of our souls.” ― Dean Koontz

About the Group:

Healing Species was founded by Cheri Brown Thompson in 2000 after receiving her law degree from University of South Carolina School of Law. During her time in law school, Cheri spent years researching and interviewing convicted violent offenders where she learned of the link between violence toward animals and violent crime in society. She found that most of these violent offenders have two things in common: they were abused or neglected as children; and they acted out that abuse on the only victim more vulnerable than them, an animal. Knowing that she had found her true calling, Thompson gave up practicing law to focus on building a program that was dedicated to ending the cycle of returning “violence for violence.” With all of the cases she studied she found that compassion, both a lack of receiving it and understanding what it is, was a key missing component in these subjects’ lives.

Around this same time, Thompson met a dog in need that helped to further inspire her vision of changing the cycle of violence, a neglected and homeless pup she called Gravey. Gravey was covered in mange, under-nourished, and extremely fearful of people. She was so afraid of people that it took Cheri a full month to win her trust, inching closer and closer each time Cheri came to deliver food and water. Cheri’s compassion and persistence to helping Gravey earned her the trust of the cautious canine and Cheri was able to take Gravey home for medical treatment and, most of all, a happy loving home. Reflecting on the experience, Thompson realized that people could see Gravey with their eyes, but not with their hearts. They saw an animal in need, but didn’t have the compassion and heart to help. She knew she could do something to change that. “We can teach compassion. What better way than through a rescued dog that returns love even in the face of hate,” she said. Armed with her research and helpful pup Gravey, Thompson developed the Healing Species curriculum, aimed chiefly at middle-schoolers, that she, her trained staff, and their rescued dogs now present to more than 3,000 students and incarcerated juveniles annually. Since the program began in 2000, the organization has grown in popularity and size, with “Satellite” programs in Wisconsin, Texas, and New Zealand.

Healing Species is the first animal assisted violence intervention program in the nation that is addressing the root of behavior and violence issues. The students who participate in the program are given tools to overcome grief, anger, and abuse, and learn to respect the feeling of all beings through acts of compassion and responsibility. “We build a bridge between students and their hearts with the help of rescued animals,” says Joy Southard, executive director, Healing Species of Texas. “The participation of the rescued dogs helps us reach all children, including high-risk youth. The dogs help children open up to the message that even the most wounded among us has something important to give and deserves to be safe. Many of the children we teach have come from situations similar to these dogs—abuse and neglect—and they do not have the skills to overcome their situations.” She adds, “We strive to reach these children who need to know they are important and needed.”


Healing Species’ Founding Principles:

  • Crime is a learned or reactive behavior. It can be unlearned. Even children who have never been nurtured can learn “how to” nurture others and themselves, thus intercepting the cycle of violence, abuse, neglect, and crime.
  • The lessons provide an epiphany for children that they do not have to accept abuse; they do not have to join gangs; they do not have to sell drugs; and they do not have to fight their way through life.
  • The children learn firsthand that—just like the visiting dogs nobody else wanted—they are important, have something to give, and deserve to be safe.

About the DOGs:

The stars of Healing Species are the dogs. These dogs that have experienced abuse from humans and learned to overcome their fears to trust again are living examples to the participants that what happens to you in life does not define you. All beings have value and worth. “We are teaching the next generation, the ones who will be our leaders and caregivers of this world, to change the way they treat each other and our animals; to be advocates for the voiceless, to make decisions based on empathy, to not continue the cycle of violence,” says Southard. “This empowers the students to find hope and courage for their own lives.”


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The Healing Species dogs are most often part of the instructor’s adopted family, but also may come from animal assistance programs, shelter outreach programs, and friends of Healing Species. Each dog must have a rescue history, pass a temperament test to show their willingness to be exposed to this extremely social atmosphere, and have access to ongoing health maintenance and quality care, ensuring they are truly cared for.

For these dogs participation in the program is a stark contrast to their former life and they are showered with affection and love the minute they arrive at a school. “They are like rock stars. More importantly, they are seen by hundreds of children as an example of courage, perseverance, loyalty, trust, and love,” says Joy. “We bring dogs who are now the ambassadors for shelter and stray dogs everywhere, overcoming their past situation to help give back to our community. Our hope is that through hearing each dog’s story this next generation will not repeat what has happened to these animals, while drawing powerful life lessons to assist them throughout their journey to adulthood.”

One dog who has made a tremendous impact on everyone he meets is Lt. Dan, a mastiff mix puppy who was the victim of a puppy mill breeder. During his birth, which must have been breech, he was pulled by his back legs out of the mother, causing irreparable damage to his hips. He was then put up for sale on Craigslist as a mastiff with “weak legs,” but in reality he was paralyzed. Luckily, he was rescued by a Houston-area veterinarian who provided him with a wheelchair and new lease on life. He joined Healing Species’ Texas satellite program and assisted instructors with classes at a juvenile detention facility. “We had just finished teaching a component of one of the lessons on empathy and how that leads to responsibility, and Lt. Dan was brought in for the follow-up lesson,” Southard remembers. “The kids told us about their own experience with dog fighting and things they had done to harm animals. After hearing some of the disturbing things they had done to animals, Lt. Dan was brought in and the reaction to this beautiful dog who cannot use his legs because of what someone did to him was extremely powerful. These very tough boys were in awe of Lt. Dan. He certainly inspired anger against the people who harmed him, but he also was able to convey something universal in that room. Each boy felt a degree of reverence toward Lt. Dan. They respected him; they didn’t feel sorry for him. They were able to see his courage. For us, it was another gift from an unlikely leader, this disabled pup, Lt. Dan.”

Healing Species has so many dogs that have life experiences that are profoundly meaningful, like Lt. Dan. The children not only learn valuable lessons through their stories and their examples, they form a unique bond with the dogs. So much so that they have often been asked to highlight these dogs on their website so that the children could follow their stories and also retell them. These requests led Southard to create a new component to the curriculum in Texas, the assembly presentation Dogs of Character. Gathering in school assemblies the students are introduced to three to five dogs who represent situations that many children face today. “We compare the feelings of a new dog at the dog park to that of a new kid on the playground. We will bring a dog that has the physical signs of abuse, perhaps he has lost his leg due to cruelty, for our older kids to address bullying,” says Southard.  We bring dogs that have amazing loyalty to each other yet are characteristically so very different, to teach diversity and tolerance, and are even working on a new project with young girls who have been victims of human trafficking. Dogs provide a safe and special way to identify troubling issues, like bullying, instead of giving heavy-handed lectures to students. So much of Dogs of Character’s work is with kids who are struggling to rise above their situations and these dogs become a vehicle for teaching empathy both to and for these children. The program has been extremely successful in schools across Texas and they are currently developing a franchise program to make it available for other states to use in their schools.


“Peace on earth starts with how we treat the weakest or most voiceless among us.” – Cheri Brown Thompson


The Results:

Beyond reaching thousands of at-risk children with their message each year, Healing Species and their entire curriculum are providing positive, quantitative results that include a reduction in in-school and out of school suspensions, reduced classroom behavior problems, and a rise in academic test scores. “The long-term effect on civility is indisputable,” says Cheri Brown Thompson. “Independent research found suspensions decreased 55%, acts of aggression decreased 62%, and acts of empathy increased 42% in classrooms where the 13-week, 1-hour-a-week curriculum had been presented. Moreover, school officials report less bullying and violence and academic scores have gone up.” They have also received the support and endorsement of many government entities and school districts throughout the nation, proving the value of the program and the power of these dogs to educate everyone they come in contact with. “In Texas, we have the support and recognition of the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission and Judge Mike Schneider here in Harris County, and that is huge,” says Southard. The group has also been recognized by the South Carolina Department of Education as “Best of the Best” in both intervention programming and the arena of character education. In 2010, the South Carolina Department of Education also approved the Healing Species program as a “Propitious New Model Program” for at-risk students, meaning it is an effective and favored program to help struggling students and schools, and allowing the usage of Federal dollars to implement the program.

“All of this is wonderful, but personally, it is the letters from the children telling us they no longer bully the kid who is different from them that is most rewarding,” says Southard.  “When we teach the Diversity and Tolerance lesson we are acutely aware of this issue having a profound effect and we pull no punches when addressing cruelty to animals and cruelty to people. The recent suicides of children taunted for being gay is discussed with the goal of asking students to base all their actions on empathy that leads to responsibility. ‘Could you have saved him?’ and the response from a class that says ‘yes, I could have and will’ is undeniably a testament to our work.”



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How You Can Help

As is the case for most non-profit agencies, Healing Species relies on the help of volunteers and charitable contributions to continue their mission. “We have schools on the waiting list because funding has gone down, so of course many of our needs are financial,” says Southard. The cost of providing the service to a school, which covers all implementation costs for up to 12 classes per school for 11-13 weeks for regions served, includes: employee training and continuing education; curriculum and material development;  travel and related expenses; dog care for their canine instructors; basic supplies for each instructor; and operational office expenses. For as little as $45, donors can make the life-changing program a reality for one child and there are many ways to make an impact no matter what your giving budget. In addition to raising funds, community awareness and volunteer recruitment are priorities for Healing Species. “We could use community support through PTA/PTOs and rescue organizations who have pups that they think would like this work,” says Joy. “Specifically in Texas, we are looking for help in the regions that we have recently began expanding into, which includes San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin.”  We highly encourage all of our readers to visit their website to learn ways that they can help, whether through donations, volunteering, or assisting in their effort to rescue and rehabilitate homeless animals. We applaud Healing Species, their staff, volunteers, and most of all the dogs who are helping to bring compassion and love to all they encounter.


The Sanctuary

At least 4 million animals are put to death in the United States every year. In the Healing Species founding chapter location of Orangeburg, SC, more than 5,000 animals are put to death every year because no one wants them. Healing Species is doing all they can to help homeless animals in their area, and in 2008 they opened the Healing Species Sanctuary in an effort to save as many animals as they could while also promoting the benefits and importance of adoption.

The Healing Species Sanctuary is a very unique and special place! Each dog awaits his home in natural “packs” with other dog-friends. They are never made to live in pens or “runs” and are grouped according to personalities in one-acre yards with lots of room to play, green grass, and the open blue sky.

Healing Species dogs come with a good bill of health. They go to great expense, effort, and veterinary specialty to ensure that every dog is healthy, loved, and ready for their new forever home. To learn more about their sanctuary and meet some of the adoptable animals, visit the “Rescue” section of their website www.healingspecies.org.

RyanThis article was written by LIFE+DOG editor Ryan Rice.

To read more from Ryan, visit his blog on our site.

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