Erin Napp, our newest dorm parent, introduces animal therapy to Oli students during our recent summer session.
It’s a warm summer morning in New Hampshire. Outside, the trees are lush, the mountains pristine on the horizon, and a group of teenagers are petting and talking to a number of dogs on the grass. This may just sound like a normal day at Oli — after all, we’re blessed with a number of much-loved campus dogs — but this scene was much more intentional.
Erin Napp, Oli’s newest dorm parent, drew from her background as an animal science teacher and equine specialist to initiate our first-ever dog-centric community meeting. Community meetings at Oli are opportunities for students and staff to catch up on announcements and share things they’re appreciative and grateful for.
But community meetings are also opportunities for our staff members to dive into a topic they’re interested in. Because Oli staff take turns leading the community meetings, they’re able to introduce the students to new subjects that might not always fit the curriculum or lesson plan of a given class period. That’s why, when it came to be Erin’s turn to lead, she realized it was the perfect time to try introducing animal therapy to Oli students.
To get her meeting idea off the ground, Erin first sourced dogs from around the Oliverian community. Fortunately, she had plenty to choose from! In the end, counselor Ben Jones volunteered Jams, who’s equally good with dogs and people alike, Mike Sallade brought along Tippet, Sharon McCallie-Steller offered up Sully’s services, and Connor Fahey’s dog Stella rounded out the group.
Because Erin usually works with horses and had never used dogs therapeutically before, she began by asking students what they thought the similarities between horses and dogs were. “We discussed loyalty,” she says. “Both are loyal. Both are very honest — if you’re honest with them, they’re going to be honest with you. They trust very well — if you trust them, they trust you.”
Erin asked students to think about something that’s been weighing on them lately, a secret they’re not ready to share, or something they’re really excited about. Then, after introducing each dog and giving a little bit of background on their personalities, she asked students to go to the dog they felt most drawn to and talk about what’s on their mind.
The goal of animal therapy activities like this is to help students practice open, honest, and clear communication. “With animals you can be more honest,” Erin says, “and they can tell if you’re honest. You can see it all over their whole body that they’re listening to you and they believe you. And if you’re lying to them, they know, and they’re gonna let you know. It’s a totally different atmosphere than talking with a person.”
Erin says animal therapy often helps students become more comfortable with discussing serious topics. By talking first to an animal who won’t judge or question, students can gain the confidence to work up to eventually discussing their thoughts or concerns with a counselor, parent, or friend. “It helps them get concerns off their chest and lighten their load a little bit,” Erin says.
As she watched students get down on the ground to share small, intimate moments with the dogs, she was thrilled by just how many of the teenagers were fully engaged. “The kids are pretty great,” she says. “I enjoy working with them, for sure. It’s totally different from anything I’ve ever done.”
If how the students responded to their first encounter with animal therapy is any indication, we’re sure Erin will fit right in at Oli.