Introduction: This paper reviews a life-career programme for youth who have social withdrawal experiences, which is funded by The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust. The programme combines narrative practice with animal-assisted intervention. Young people visit shelter dogs which have been abused or abandoned and engage in human-canine activities designed to promote a positive relationship between humans and animals. Participants learnt to read canine comfort signals and how to care for the dogs. Narrative intervention is used to help participants explore the skills, values and commitment involved in caring for animals and finding meaning in life. This paper will discuss this programme, and the changes it brings to the lives of young people. It also examines the change process and reflects on human-canine interaction.
Methodology: Qualitative interviews were conducted to examine the process and the effects of the programme. Eight young people aged 16 to 20, five females and three males, participated as user respondents. They had been secluded at home for between 6 months and 3 years. Interviews were conducted with three social workers and one Animal Assisted Therapist. One focus group was conducted with five programme workers. A thematic analysis was conducted for the study.
Results: Young people reported that a reciprocal relationship was experienced in the process of caring for the dogs, which offered trust, acceptance, kindness, unconditional love and non-judgmental contact. According to them, this differed from their relationships with peers. The users offered love, care, respect, companionship and a secure interacting environment for the dogs, which encouraged them to believe in their ability to care for living beings. A positive self-identity with a greater sense of achievement and self-worth was built up. The interaction was also beneficial to the dogs as they became trusting, confident and accepting of human care. Many young people were inspired to explore animal care work and to promote animal welfare.
Implications: This study supports the integration of animal interaction in helping youth to mitigate the undesirable impact of social withdrawal and to rebuild confidence and positive self-identity. With thoroughly planned AAT and NT interventions, the experience was positive for both the youth and practitioners. The benefits of human-canine interaction were mutual. The programme also supported young people to become mentors, to share their transformations with new members of the programme, and with parents, teachers and the community.