September 24, 2019

Can Wolves Help Troubled Teens? One Program Thinks So

Image of wolf in the snow
With the help of CGU researchers, a new program is showing that the creation of a bond between wolves and teens can actually help both.

Earlier this year an NPR story highlighted a program—and the research of a group of several CGU doctoral students—that helps teens from abusive backgrounds to heal by interacting with wolves and wolf-dogs that have faced similar mistreatment.

That program—and the research behind it—is now the subject of the new book, The Wolf Connection: What Wolves Can Teach Us About Being Human (Wolf Connection is also the name of the organization that provides a sanctuary for wolves and wolf-dogs on a 165-acre ranch in Southern California’s high desert).

A partnership between the organization and a local high school resulted in the Youth Empowerment Program, which aims to build a stronger sense of teen self and social connection that has been weakened—if not destroyed—by traumatic experiences in their lives.

The program’s centerpiece is the bond-building between the teens and the sanctuary’s animals.  The teens are taught to understand that if these wolves can recover from abuse and demonstrate trust towards them, they can recover, too.

A nice idea, but does it really work? That is where the science of evaluation—and CGU’s students—entered the picture.

The CGU researchers—Piper Grandjean Targos, Courtney Koletar, Rachael Perlman, Adam Markey, and Devin Larsen—provided key research in two studies (featured in the book) by assessing changes in positive social behaviors from the participating teens.

“Evaluation is a powerful, practical discipline that seeks an understanding of the intangible effects of programs like this one,” explained Grandjean Targos. “How do you measure the change in someone’s self-awareness? Or their ability to trust others? The evaluation process tackles these questions and creates meaningful information that can make the program’s impact even stronger.”

“Working with such a unique program was truly an amazing experience for me,” says CGU researcher Piper Grandjean Targos.

What they found was an increase in the teens’ capacity for self-reflection and insight, connectedness to the natural world, and an ability to open up and trust other people.  They also found that the presence of the animals had a dramatic impact on the levels of teen engagement.

Even though the students “initially were intimidated by the presence of wolves,” the research report notes, “they eventually grew comfortable around them,” and that comfort level deepened into a special bond for many of the teens–a bond that encourages healing for both teens and wolves.

“Working with such a unique program was truly an amazing experience for me. Not only were we able to apply the skills we’ve been learning as CGU students, but we uncovered real program effects from the data we collected and analyzed—something that is both grounding and thrilling,” Grandjean Targos said. “I am grateful to have gotten to know the genuinely warm Wolf Connection staff… including the wolves!”

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