Dogs making a difference - MetroFamily Magazine
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Dogs making a difference

by Erin Page; photos by Lauren Smith

It’s nearing 3:30 p.m. on the Boys Ranch Town campus in Edmond. Six dogs sit at attention near the gate inside their large fenced lawn, ears cocked, gazes searching. Their entire bodies begin
to wag in anticipation when they spot their boys walking toward them, ready to begin that afternoon’s training in the Lucky Dog Program. This scene is repeated daily at the ranch, a program of Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children.

“The dogs know the routine, and when it’s time for Lucky Dog, they line up and wait,” said Brent Thackerson, campus administrator. “The few times we’ve had to cancel for weather, the dogs will still wait for several hours. You can sense their disappointment.”

Many of the boys who call the ranch home have experienced some level of trauma in their young lives. The pups they train come from hard places, too, all of them rescue dogs. The Lucky Dog Program was born when Thackerson realized the impact his own dog, the program’s namesake, had on a resident in the midst of an emotional crisis.

“Lucky got in that kid’s lap as he cried and held him,” said Thackerson. “I saw the kid change in a matter of minutes, willing to talk and share what was going on. I thought, ‘There’s something here.’”

Animal care boosts emotional health

Boys Ranch Town was founded in 1953, and the 145-acre working ranch has been home to more than 1,000 residents, boys who need a new beginning, some discipline and a lot of love. These are boys between the ages of 7 and 15 who have struggled at home with behavior and need, as Thackerson says, a time out. Alternately, some are being raised by single moms who want their sons to have
positive male influences in their lives. Others are being raised by grandparents who can’t continue to meet their grandsons’ needs. Kids can refer themselves for residency or be referred by a parent, family member, teacher or social services. When deemed safe, residents can continue to have relationships with their biological families while living on campus.

The boys live in cottages with up to eight residents and a married couple serving as houseparents. Boys tend to stay at the ranch for an average of 18 months, but they can live on campus until high school graduation if needed. Currently, 55 residents call Boys Ranch Town home, along with four house parent couples, all trained in working with children with behavior challenges or who’ve experienced trauma.

“We provide a lot of structure,” said Thackerson. “We’re not like a military school, but we have a routine where they get up and do things at the same time every day.”

Residents attend Edmond Public Schools and are encouraged to participate in activities both on the ranch and in school. In addition to the Lucky Dog Program, an after-school activity on the ranch accepting up to eight boys each semester, residents can work with horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and petting zoo animals, including two camels relied upon for the ranch’s annual Christmas pageant, open to the community. Residents learn responsibility and the value of hard work by working with animals dependent on them for care.

“When they love a pet and the pet loves them back, they feel needed,” said Thackerson. “Having that responsibility increases their self-esteem and they see they are important, which improves their emotional health so much.”

Boys Ranch Town also offers 4H, sports, crafts, trail rides, campouts and rodeos for residents. Boys are encouraged to participate in FFA, JROTC, band, school sports and other extracurricular activities offered by the school district.

Perceptive pooches offer listening ears

When boys participate in the Lucky Dog Program, they start with teaching basic obedience commands like sit and stay. Once the dogs and boys have accomplished those, they move on to teaching tricks and then developing an entire skit where the dogs perform farm and ranch chores. Boys can sign up for the after-school program repeatedly, which starts over each semester. It’s not just the boys enrolled in Lucky Dog who benefit from the calming effect of the pooches on campus. The dogs live in the cottages with the residents and are available anytime in helping boys work through emotional or behavioral challenges.

“When the homes have pets, the boys are healthier as individuals,” said Thackerson. “I can tell a difference.”

When boys come home from school obviously upset, Thackerson encourages them to take their dog or horse on a walk and tell their companion their feelings. As Thackerson watches the boy and pet pairs amble around the lake, he often sees those boys pausing to give hugs to their furry friends.

“School doesn’t come easily for most of them so when they come home they may not be in a good mood,” said Thackerson. “They tell their horse or dog what they are mad or frustrated about. When they come back, they are calmed down and ready to talk.”

Even the boys with the toughest problems are no match for the ranch dogs crawling in their laps, giving big licks and their undivided attention.

“It’s amazing to see how kids respond, calming down quicker, opening up faster, softening to start talking and letting down their guard,” said Thackerson. “Then we get to see the good side of a kid coming out instead of the negative.”

Canine companions impart lifelong lessons

While Thackerson has been thrilled to see how the Lucky Dog Program has positively affected residents’ lives on campus, the impact hasn’t stopped there. One of the college students who lives on campus as a mentor now directs the Lucky Dog Program. Another student, now over 18, who lives on campus in transitional housing was lonely and asked Thackerson if he could get a cat. A
barn cat has become his new companion, and Thackerson has noted improvements in the young man now that he has something to love and care for.

A former resident now attending Oklahoma State University recently visited Thackerson, with his loyal German shepherd by his side. The student has become more secure and emotionally healthy by having a furry friend to share his life.

“That kid needs companionship, and he’s doing as well as he is because of that dog,” said Thackerson.

Caring for pets at Boys Ranch Town has helped residents develop patience, responsibility and compassion, both toward others and themselves. Those lifelong lessons will continue to serve Boys Ranch Town residents well as they learn to navigate as adults.

“We feel like animals are a blessing from God to help us learn companionship and help with our problems and issues,” said Thackerson.

Editor’s note: The Boys Ranch Town free drive-through Christmas pageant will be Dec. 6, 7 and 8.