“I felt like someone told me my kid was a genius.”
That was Pam Gaber’s reaction after the first visit she made to Crisis Nursery in Phoenix with her Weimaraner, Gabriel. The kids at the domestic violence shelter responded so well to Gabriel that he was asked to keep coming back. Soon, a few friends started joining Pam and Gabriel; then, shelters started calling. In the 10 years since, the idea has spread to over 100 therapy teams in over 90 shelters and agencies in Arizona.
The aim of Gabriel’s Angels is to break the cycle of violence by teaching kids who have seen abuse how to love, trust and empathize with other living beings. Kids brush the dogs, pet them, listen to the dog’s heartbeat through a stethoscope, then listen to their own heartbeat through the same stethoscope. The lesson: dogs are living creatures just like they are.
Why does it work? Kids who’ve seen violence are more likely to be abusive themselves. And that abuse often starts with animal abuse, usually by age 7. “If we let them have a love affair with these animals, they won’t abuse animals,” says Pam. It interrupts the cycle that starts with animal abuse and doesn’t progress to abuse against another person. Kids in the Gabriel’s Angels program “exit the cycle of violence or never enter it.” It prevents both future domestic violence and future animal abuse.
The nuts and bolts of it is that kids learn love, trust, empathy, tolerance, confidence and respect by bonding with a dog. These traits overcome what they’ve learned in abusive homes and help them re-learn how to bond with animals, other kids and adults. By learning how to love and trust again, and how to connect with others, kids can then form positive attachments that will drastically change the rest of their lives.
Pam shared a story of a teenage boy at a group home where she and her Rhodesian Ridgeback Noah volunteered. The boy sat on the outskirts of the group in a funk – sad, alone, not interacting with anyone. After a while, Pam asked him if he would walk Noah. A few minutes into this walk, Pam watched as the kid sank to his knees and embraced Noah in a full hug. He sat there hugging Noah for a few minutes. After the hug, he said simply to Pam, “Noah’s my best friend.” He walked away and joined the other kids. Another volunteer filled Pam in: that very morning, his parents had decided to emancipate him. His parents no longer wanted him. Can you imagine the feeling of knowing that your parents never want to see you again? That’s the funk he was in, and as Pam said, “He needed something to jar him, and that was Noah.” Noah made him feel loved once again, unconditionally and without judgment.
Nala and I are in the process of becoming a certified therapy team so that we can volunteer with Gabriel’s Angels. Please join us in supporting this incredible organization, whether as a therapy team, a Helping Hand volunteer, or one of the many other ways they need support. To find out more, you can visit the Gabriel’s Angels website.
It really works. As one kid told Pam, “I abused animals before. Now I get it.”
Update: Gabriel passed away in 2010. Pam has written a book about him and the incredible work he inspired. You can check it out by clicking here: Gabriel's Angels - The Story of the Dog Who Inspired a Revolution
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Photo of Pam Gaber’s therapy dogs: retired Rhodesian Ridgeback Noah; the organization’s namesake, Gabriel the Weimaraner; active therapy dog Jack, a Weimaraner who works with teen boys in a group home.