Joy Southard is one of my favorite people on the planet. True, I haven’t met all of the people on the planet, but if even if I did, I assure you, Joy would still be at the top of the list. We met a few years ago when I interviewed her for an article I was writing about the program she runs in Texas called Healing Species. Joy’s kind spirit just filled the room.
But don’t let Joy’s big heart and soft Southern accent fool you. She is as tenacious as a terrier when it comes to humane education. She travels around Texas to talk to kids of all ages to tell them that they matter, that they have the power within them to follow their own path, and she uses rescue dogs to do it. Many of the dogs in the program have been abandoned or abused or unwanted for whatever reason. Through their stories the kids relate in ways that they probably wouldn’t if they were just being told by an adult. Joy doesn’t shy away from or sugarcoat the dogs’ (sometimes) sad stories. Because in the honesty of what happened to the dogs is where the kids find understanding, respect and, most of all, hope. The dogs made it through, and they can, too.
Because of Joy I am absolutely sure of one thing: compassion is key. To be able to look at another living being and think, “you matter” is one of the most important life lessons of all. Without further ado, please let me introduce you to Joy!
Tell me a little about the program The Healing Species.
Healing Species is a compassion education program and curriculum that is taught with the assistance of rescued dogs. These dogs have stories of abuse and neglect and are the living example to children of how to overcome your life situation with courage, perseverance, integrity and self worth. The program has the endorsement of educators and juvenile justice in South Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, New Zealand and now California. More importantly, it has published results to show its effectiveness in raising academics, lowering the amount of school behavior problems and ultimately teaching children to make decisions based on empathy.
How did you get involved in the program?
I was with an organization called CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) in Texas as their Development Director. This is an organization that places citizen volunteers with children who have been removed from their home due to abuse and neglect. During their removal and subsequent court hearings to determine best interest for placement, our volunteers would be the court’s eyes and ears for this child. I was given cases to work as well.
One of them was a young boy who was removed from his home for very disturbing reasons. He was used as a “scapegoat;” all the other children were treated differently. He was hog tied daily. His family would put zip ties around his wrists and ankles and carry him out to the backyard. He had never attended school; he had no socialization. The police were called to the home by a neighbor who caught the boy trying to get away. Thankfully, the rights of these parents were terminated. I came on the case when the child went into foster care. It was what he did in each foster home that as horrific as it was, would be a link to Healing Species that was undeniable. He tortured cats. He drowned, burned, strangled and hung them. It was his way to feel powerful. In his young life, he had been treated like these cats. Research calls this concept “objectification.”
I learned about Healing Species just a week after I left CASA. There was an article in the Traditional Home magazine, awarding the founder Cheri Brown Thompson with Winning Women Changing the World. Texas was not mentioned as a site for Healing Species, but I was really determined to bring it here. After my experience with CASA and specifically this child’s story, I knew the link between animal cruelty and potential violence against people shouldn’t be ignored. Cheri Thompson developed a program that was based on this research. I trained in South Carolina, selected a Board of Directors and am now leading the Texas Chapter.
My work with abused children was the primary experience for directing the program. I’d never worked with dogs professionally. I have however rescued many, many dogs and I always felt I was cursed with this overwhelming sensitivity to animal suffering. This program is trademarked as compassion education not only for its teaching of compassion to each other, but also compassion and empathy for all living things.
From there you developed the Dogs of Character assembly. Can you talk a little about that?
We have in our Texas Chapter many dogs that have life experiences that are profoundly meaningful. Some are disabled, have overcome the dog fighting ring, or overcome severe neglect and yet, they are forgiving, trusting and brave. They have the ability to teach children through their stories and their example. We have often been asked to highlight these dogs on our website so that the children could follow their stories and also retell them.
Dogs of Character was created out of those requests. It is an assembly presentation of three dogs and parallels their story to that of a child. 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 who has the physical signs of abuse, perhaps he has lost his leg due to cruelty, for our older kids to address bullying. We bring dogs who have amazing loyalty to each other yet are characteristically so very different to teach diversity and tolerance. The program has been really successful in schools across Texas and we are franchising this for other states to use.
What age range of kids does the program target?
The program Healing Species was written to begin at the 4th grade level, but we revise it to reach students all the way to high school. In Texas we have probably reached over 3,000 now.
What are some of the lessons that you want children to take away from the program or assemblies?
It is very important that we leave knowing that the children will retell a dogs’ story. Inherent in this is the knowledge that in this retelling this child understands the message and will probably identify with the dog. Ultimately, we want the children to learn the skills that these dogs have learned: self worth, loyalty, kindness and empathy.
One of my favorite stories was a class of kids in a juvenile detention center. We teach the quote by Albert Schweitzer, “Until man extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, he himself will not find peace.” In this lesson a young boy went up to our board and drew a stick figure with a sad face inside a circle. He explained that this is a boy he is putting in his “circle of compassion” who he had bullied for most of the year. His sad face indicated his tears. He told us he was going to apologize to this boy and keep him safe from others who would bully him. That was pretty meaningful to us because we later learned how our student kept his word and was ridiculed for sticking up for the kid who was a target.
We teach that strength comes from advocacy. When our students finish Healing Species they know they have the tools to practice being important to someone or something. Due to this boy’s felony charges that got him into juvenile detention, he was not given many chances to lead anything at school when he returned. We work very hard to give these kids chances to feel needed. They are definitely needed to help us change how animals are treated! They are also needed to change how we treat each other. One doesn’t have to be crowned Homecoming King or elected student class president to change the world for the better.
What have the responses of the teachers / educators been like?
Because our program has the published results to prove effectiveness we are in a very good position to offer the program and “get in the door.” Additionally, we are the first and only animal-assisted violence intervention program in the nation. We have quotes from educators that say, “I wish every child could have this program” or “The program is exactly what we need to teach children compassion and empathy.” It’s so, so important to have their support and recommendations. Many times we will have entire districts send their counselors to observe classes or assemblies.
Where do you get the dogs you use in the program? Do you have to do any special training?
If I asked all your readers to raise their hand if they have a rescue dog would you get an idea of where we get ours? We are asked this question often. Thankfully, there are many people who are kind enough to rescue dogs and take them into their home either off the street or from shelters. Thankfully, they are also kind enough to let us “borrow” them for classes or assemblies. We have dogs of all breeds, sizes and histories. Each one goes through rigid temperament testing to determine their suitability for this work.
Working in juvenile facilities can be very challenging for dogs who may be sensitive to loud noises and shouting. We are very cognizant of this when we evaluate a new dog. These facilities are military in nature and can get pretty intense. I’m especially proud of our pups who go into these situations with wagging tails despite the atmosphere.
Tell us a little about Quincy.
Ah, little Quin. He came to me after I lost the love of my life, Elliott. Interestingly, even though Elliott was a rescue, he was not part of the program. He would’ve been one of those dogs who would hide under a table at a juvenile facility if he heard someone holler.
His story is one that we hope children will not only retell, but will use it to save their own lives one day if they are ever in an abusive situation. Quincy was thrown like a piece of trash out of a moving car. We have no idea what his life was like before that. Evidently, he wasn’t wanted. Someone watched from a convenience store as this dog landed on the pavement and rolled into a ditch. He chose not to stay in that ditch despite his injuries and was seen limping to the side of the road where he had been thrown.
The pup watched and waited for a car to pick him up. Maybe he was waiting for his owners to come back for him. They didn’t. But, he was picked up and taken to safety. His story is about self empowerment and safety and that no one deserves to be hurt. He also teaches that his life has meaning and worth. He has overcome that situation and pain and now is an integral part of the Dogs of Character program.
I know you have so many great stories! Can you share one or two with us?
Well, it wasn’t Quin’s story that was important to an autistic boy; it was his hair and his presence. All of our dogs have some quality that communicates with children in ways that are magical. We couldn’t begin to reach children the ways these dogs can. This boy was terrified of dogs and when we came to the school he was removed from even seeing Quincy. But, he happened to catch a glimpse of Quincy as we were leading him in. The teachers did their best to keep him under control, but he wanted to run out of the school.
During the class, the boy had made some motion to his teachers that he might want to see the dog in the other room. Five teachers led the boy into the Quincy’s class and you could tell he was terrified. Apparently he had been chased by a neighbor dog and bitten. He had not learned to speak, but made sounds that the teachers understood and were reacting to as he walked over to Quincy. Quincy’s hair was the bridge. He’s a sheepdog sort of mix. This boy so very gently touched Quin’s hair and fluffed it up. He eventually used both hands to do this. Then he gave Quin a kiss. Then he took the leash and walked him. Well, his special education teachers were crying. It was a really neat thing to be a part of and the other children in the class were so good and kind to him. Yeah, we were crying too.
I’d like to share Lt. Dan’s story. Lt. Dan was a mastiff mix puppy who was the victim of a puppy mill breeder. Apparently, during his birth, which must have been breech, he was pulled by his back legs out of the mother. This caused damage to his hips. He was then put on Craigslist as a mastiff with “weak legs,” but really he was paralyzed.
A Houston vet rescued him and fitted him with a wheelchair. We were honored to have him attend 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 the brought for the follow up lesson. Our kids told us about their own experience with dog fighting and things they had done to harm animals. Some can have a bravado about this that is certainly disturbing. We always stress that all animals have feelings. These dogs that they are fighting have feelings and don’t enjoy this activity.
And, here rolls in this beautiful pup who cannot use his legs because of what someone did to him. Well, the reaction was 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. That day was repeated for a few more classes until Lt Dan underwent surgery. The kids still ask about the pup in the wheelchair.
What are some of the main obstacles you’re facing now?
We are still “under the radar” despite working in several states. In Texas, we are seeing a surge in rescue groups who want to start their own education program and we are confused with them oftentimes because they have more press.
Of course another hurdle is funding. Our program is not free and schools are suffering now with funding cuts. Currently, there are many schools in Texas on the waiting list for this program. Austin schools especially. We must write grants, fund raise and ask for donations like so many other non profits.
What do you see on the horizon for Dogs of Character?
Dogs of Character will continue as an assembly as long as there are rescue dogs! I’ve written seven books from the point of view of seven of our dogs. Each one tells their story and how they hope a child will relate to it and retell it. The books are message books and a tribute to the dogs as well.
I hope to have the assembly used nationwide! I think it is an opportunity for people in regions across the country to bring their love of animals and children together as a business. Schools are always looking for that one assembly that will make a difference to the culture of a school. I believe this one does it. It also has given us a wonderful opportunity to introduce The Healing Species.
Baylor College of Medicine’s School of Social Work has licensed Healing Species for the Houston and Galveston region. Their licensed social workers will teach this program as instructors with their own rescued dogs. It is huge! It is validation from a well respected university of the power and effectiveness of this program. The University of Texas has a School of Social Work college that is now taking the steps to bring their graduate students into internship positions with Healing Species. This is also validation of the program. They are especially interested in the work we do with the juvenile probation population. This would be their first animal-assisted work.
I’m just learning about Healing Species going to California. That is exciting. I have Dogs of Character interest also and will be traveling this spring to pilot the first assemblies at schools in Los Angeles.
What does this program mean to you?
Just about everything. It is an opportunity to teach the next generation things that maybe they are not learning at home. Many children are learning hate should be returned with hate, or that animals are objects, or that they are worthless because of their economic situation. Healing Species so completely and comprehensively teaches children that they have the power to change the world for good. The fact that is done with the assistance of rescued and formerly abused dogs makes it all the more worthwhile.
On the animal front…I hope our work eliminates the work of animal shelters. That’s lofty; I know. But on a more realistic level I hope our work at least helps to reduce the suffering of so many animals. I hope Lt Dan, Quincy, Bruno and all the rest of our wonderful dogs will be the ambassadors for shelter dogs everywhere and that children will recognize how important their lives and quality of life is.
On the people front…I hope children will grow into empathetic, responsible and self empowered adults; knowing that their strength comes from advocating for another. We have many “unlikely leaders” who just need to know they are needed.