Amy Johnson believes in the healing power of animals.
She is also allergic to dogs.
This paradox explains almost everything about Johnson, an Oakland University teacher who runs Teacher's Pet, a nonprofit program that pairs at-risk youth with hard-to adopt shelter dogs.
The animal therapy programs are her life. Not only has she developed an Animal Assisted Therapy Certificate program at OU, but she also teaches an Honors College class at the university called The Human Animal Bond, in which students earn their science credit and learn about why humans and animals connect and how that connection is built upon in animal-assisted therapy.
Johnson is the administration project manager for OU’s School of Nursing; most of her animal therapy causes are done on her own volunteer time.
“Kids and animals,” Johnson said. “Those have always been my soft spots.”
One of Johnson’s dog therapy training programs takes place in the basement of the Oakland County Animal Shelter. There, boys from the Children’s Village, an abuse shelter and detention home for troubled youth and juvenile offenders, come twice a week to teach shelter dogs obedience and learn about animal behavior, animal abuse and issues that involve animals.
Although the dogs are the participants who are overtly learning, the patience and other skills it takes to train a dog subtly teach the adolescents skills to help them cope with hardships. The kids also find ways to relate to their therapy dogs, which helps them to find ways to articulate their feelings.
Johnson once had a student who would always talk about how her father would beat and verbally abuse their dog.
“As she’s talking about the dog, in the back of my mind, I’m wondering, ‘Okay, how much of that is her and how much of that is really the dog,’” Johnson said. “It was only much later that she admitted that her dad was abusing her.”
Johnson shared another story — one that brings tears to her eyes. This story was about a girl who was a victim of sexual abuse and whose mother was an alcoholic.
Johnson keeps a letter from the girl in her office.
“I’ve realized that (my dog Missy) and I are VERY alike and have both been through a lot in our lives that we had no control over but we both held on strong and made it through everything to prove we can do it and we will both be happy in life,” the letter stated. “Missy and I are proof that miracles do happen and we can continue to live on and tell our stories and prove that we are strong."
The dogs benefit from the program as well. Cards stating that they have completed obedience training are placed on their kennels at the shelter in an effort to make them more adoptable.
Helping students, dogs
Johnson graduated from Fraser High School and then from OU. A job at the Michigan Humane Society led her to become an adoption counselor, working the pet behavior help line and running dog-training programs. While there, a friend approached Johnson about developing a program that involved children and dogs.
“She’s like ‘You’re the kid person, you know, and I’m more like the dog person, so we could work on something,’ ” Johnson said. “So I spent kind of the next year and a half just researching. I contacted any group that had anything to do with dogs and kids and learned what worked, what didn’t work.”
Teacher's Pet works with at-risk programs across Oakland County. Johnson has also started an animal-assisted therapy program for veterans. She also recently returned from a trip to Washington D.C. where she led a presentation on the benefits of animal-assisted therapy.
Those who come into contact with Johnson appreciate the knowledge and enthusiasm that she has for her work.
Tina Serafini was paired with Johnson for an obedience training externship. She now helps Johnson run the program at the Oakland County Animal Shelter and loves to do so because she enjoys working with kids and animals.
“This program — it’s just amazing,” Serafani said. “It helps the boys and girls, and helps the dogs. It’s really the best of both worlds.”
Serafini’s favorite part about working with Johnson is that she is extremely knowledgeable about her field.
“Amy is very dedicated to whatever it is she is doing, she puts her whole heart into something she believes in. I look up to Amy for who she is and what she does,” Serafani said.
To find out more about Teacher's Pet and to get involved, or to see training dogs available for adoption, visit www.TeachersPetMichigan.org.
Author Sarah Hunton is a journalism student at Oakland University.