Per the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), where animal-assisted therapy has been widely studied for individuals who have experienced trauma including physical abuse, sexual abuse, and unspecified trauma, research demonstrates that pets and animal therapy have a positive influence on a child’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development.
According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, an estimated 676,000 US children were victims of abuse in 2016
Preston, a three-year-old Labrador Retriever who’s met more than 300 child victims of sexual abuse, can be found donning a blue bandana when he is working as the Canine Advocate for Lansing’s Small Talk Children’s Assessment Center. He is the tail-wagging, belly-rub-seeking, child-comforting canine who loves his job. Located in Lansing, Michigan, Small Talk is a nationally accredited child advocacy center (CAC) and 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation leading the community in addressing child abuse and empowering children to have the courage to heal.
“After one of our clients endured a painful counseling session, she walked into the Small Talk lobby and began crying as she sank into the leather couch,” says Alex Brace, executive director and crisis counselor for Small Talk. “Without being prompted, Preston walked right over to her and put his head on her lap—that is what Preston does for the children who visit Small Talk.”
At Small Talk, law enforcement, child protection, legal, mental health, medical, and victim advocacy professionals work together to investigate abuse, help children heal from abuse, and hold offenders accountable. When working with young victims, the goal is for a trained professional (Small Talk staff member or law enforcement officer) to conduct one interview to avoid re-victimizing a child with repeated, unnecessary interviews. A child’s statement is obtained in a developmentally sensitive, unbiased, and truth-seeking manner that supports accurate and fair decision making in the criminal justice and child welfare systems.
In Ingham County, Michigan, there is an agreement between all 12 local law enforcement agencies that any child between the ages of 3 and 18 who reports being physically or sexually abused is referred to Small Talk. The corporation also is supported by the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, Sparrow Hospital, and Child Protective Services.
“Our space is very important to us,” says Brace. “Our goal is to help the children feel as comfortable and safe as possible when they are here. This includes finding ways to diminish their anxiety when they need to talk about the things that they aren’t comfortable with, which is where Preston comes in. If seeing him can add the littlest bit of brightness to a child’s day when they’ve experienced the unthinkable, then we must be doing something right by having him as a member of our team.”
Preston offers strength, comfort, and unconditional love to children who are survivors of physical and sexual abuse and neglect. He meets every child who walks through Small Talk’s doors and supports them as they navigate the stressful court process, forensic interviews, testifying in court, and sentencing. He also sits with them during counseling sessions. “The sense of unconditional support that Preston can bring to a child who is going through trauma is something that we cannot replicate. It is something we are so proud to provide to these brave child survivors of abuse,” says Brace.
MSU Veterinary Medical Center: protecting the protector
Preston’s health is one of Small Talk’s priorities. Before he was sworn in by Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney Gretchen Whitmer and Honorable Judge Laura Baird in December 2016, he worked with the MSU Veterinary Medical Center’s Primary Care Service: a relationship that began when Brace reached out to the Hospital. “The unique work that Preston does with Small Talk, supporting abused children and giving them an opportunity to heal, struck a chord with the Primary Care team and the management at the MSU Veterinary Medical Center,” says Dr. Chris Gray, director of the Hospital.
Gray became not only a trusted veterinarian for Preston, but also a new board member for Small Talk. “Dr. Gray brings fresh and diverse ideas and allies to our organization,” says Brace.
While Preston plays a vital role in protecting and comforting the children who visit Small Talk, the Hospital plays a vital role for Preston by donating all his primary care medical services and contributing to any required specialist care. “MSU does more than address Preston’s medical needs; they treat him and the Small Talk team with respect,” says Brace. “The relationship we have is invaluable and I am very appreciative of it.”
The impact of the human-animal bond
Preston’s ability to brighten a child’s day could be the result of the mere fact that he’s a dog and many people love dogs. Or, it could be because there is a special bond between humans and animals—a bond that may not have a singular definition, but allows animals to read and react to human emotions. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors essential to the health and wellbeing of others. In other words, animals are influenced by human behavior, and as living beings, they can react to that behavior. In Preston’s case, he puts his head on a child’s lap when he or she is crying, which can help the child feel better. In turn, the child pets his head, which makes Preston happy—or so can be assumed when he wags his tail.
“These children are asked to disclose the most painful information they likely have ever had to share,” says Brace. “They are asked to tell a lot of people, including their abuser, what happened to them, and they tend to feel like there’s a lot at stake—that pressure can be unimaginable. But, being able to face all that with a dog, a dog who is walking right next to them, laying on their feet, and experiencing everything that they are experiencing, gives them a little bit of strength that wouldn’t otherwise be there.”
“The importance of the human-animal bond is one that can never be underestimated, and to be able to help in the healing process of these children through providing veterinary care for Preston was an easy decision to make.”
— Dr. Chris Gray
“The importance of the human-animal bond is one that can never be underestimated, and to be able to help in the healing process of these children through providing veterinary care for Preston was an easy decision to make,” says Gray. However, the partnership between Small Talk and the MSU Veterinary Medical Center is not only about Preston and his health; it is about taking action and providing support. “The Hospital is proud to play an active role in keeping Preston healthy so that he can continue to serve the victims who need him most,” says Gray.
In addition to serving the children who visit Small Talk, Preston was present during the Nassar victim testimonials at the Ingham County Circuit Court.
“The Veterinary Medical Center is proud to play a small part in providing support for the victims,” says Gray. “Preston’s presence outside the courtroom—the relief and comfort that several victims say he brought them—demonstrates how strong the bond between humans and animals is, even if the relationship only lasts a matter of minutes.”
People can feel supported by dogs without feeling judged, criticized, embarrassed, or disliked because of something that happened to them. Dogs, especially those like Preston, are there for those who may need them in that moment, wherever, whenever, and however many times that moment may take place.
For more information about Preston and Small Talk, please contact Alex Brace at firstname.lastname@example.org.