County therapy program uses animals to build trust and confidence

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By Steve Guntli

Troubled teens, elders and veterans can find peace and learn to build relationships with Animals as Natural Therapy (ANT).

ANT is a Bellingham-based nonprofit that uses animals to help people heal, grow and learn. ANT works with troubled children, seniors, veterans and disabled people to help them develop relationships and build interpersonal skills.

Sonja Wingard is the executive and program director for ANT. She started the program 16 years ago after a long career as a nurse. She started working with troubled teens and children through Catholic Community Services, inviting groups out for day trips to her ranch on Van Wyck Road.

“We would bring kids out here and we would see the best of them,” she said. “It would give them something new
to experience.”

Wingard recalls seeing a young boy curled up with her golden retriever. Animals_SG-3

“He was smiling, and his counselor told me that was the first time she’d seen him smile. He was 9 years old and he’d been in a lockup facility for a few months.”

ANT now sees 52 youths and three veterans each week. The ranch has 14 horses, six rabbits, three dogs, two goats, two llamas, a cat, a coop full of chickens and a big turkey named Lucky. Each animal is used for therapy, and each therapy is customized to fit both the animal and the patient.

“It’s tailored to the individual,” Wingard said. “A lot of times we think we’re teaching one thing but the animal will sidetrack the lesson and we end up teaching something else. We find metaphors that we can apply to their day to day life.”

Horses are the most common therapy animals used at ANT.

“Horses are good because they’re more intimidating,” Wingard said. “Lots of the people who come here are working on anxiety issues, so if you have an intimidating-sized partner to build a relationship with, you’re going to be able to handle a lot more.”

Wingard said horses are also ideal for helping teenagers in gangs.

“Horses are always looking for a leader to keep them safe, and so they’re great for building leadership skills,” she said. “If you have a goal and a purpose, your horse is going to respond to that. That’s one of the hardest things for the kids to learn. They really have to learn to become a leader and not let someone else lead for them.”

Most of the staff at ANT are volunteers. The program keeps afloat through program fees and fundraisers.

“We have the most amazing people working here,” Wingard said. “They have to go through a very intense training program so they can learn to work with the kids and the animals, but you never hear them complain.”Animals_SG-2

On Saturday, July 11, ANT will be holding its 10th annual Bluegrass Bash to raise money for the program. The event will feature music from the Prozac Mountain Boys and Moongrass, interactive games and prizes, a salmon barbeque and a chance to meet the therapy animals up close and personal.

Tickets for the Bluegrass Bash are $20 for adults, $10 for youths and free for children under 10.

For more information on ANT’s programs, visit animalsasnaturaltherapy.org.

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