Dr. Lesli Preuss' Ranch Animals Help Asperger's, ADHD & Gifted Kids

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It was 3 a.m. eight years ago when Dr. Lesli Preuss woke up to feel her new rescue dog, Harvey, with his mouth around her throat. "Just prior to that, he had been getting really territorial around me and nipping at people who came close to me — getting very growly and aggressive. But, when this happened, I thought he'd gone over the deep end," the licensed clinical child and family psychologist tells Samaritanmag.

Luckily uninjured from her young Wheaten Terrier's odd way of waking her up, Dr. Preuss headed to the vet to get little Harvey checked out. "I’m all about rescuing animals," she continues, "but I’m not going to put my own life at risk. So, I took him in and I said, 'There’s something really wrong. I don’t know what’s going on. You’ve got to help me.' The vet said, 'I will put him on Prozac if you get yourself cleared health-wise first."

Naturally, Dr. Preuss thought, "get myself checked?

"I worked at New York Presbyterian Hospital at the time and told my physician what happened. As he's doing my physical, he literally went as white as a sheet of paper. I looked up and I said, 'You’ve got to be kidding me.' He walked me into an office that said surgical oncologist. The surgical oncologist did an exam and said, 'You need to be in surgery in the next 48 hours."

Turns out, Harvey smelled a cancerous tumor right under her collarbone — where he grabbed her that fateful night —  and they were able to treat her in time. It was Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  "Once the tumor was gone and I came home from the surgery, Harvey was like, 'Thank God you finally listened!' He slept for like two days after that," she says.

Wheaton Terriers are indeed known for their sensitive noses, and dogs have been used for years to detect tumors, predict seizures, and aid in other medical and mental health needs of humans.

"Looking back, I see now why Harvey was being so territorial. He was trying to keep me safe, and he was trying to tell me something was wrong. Harvey wasn't even trained in this. I really had just rescued him from the pound. It was the luckiest, most fortunate rescue on the planet," says Dr. Preuss. Harvey became certified as an animal assisted therapy dog after he detected the tumor and her treatment was completed.

Not only did her new pup save her life, but this amazing experience was also the first step toward using animals in her practice, employing horses, goats and pigs.  In her private practice, Dr. Preuss specializes in the treatment of Twice Exceptional and intellectually-gifted children and adolescents, as well as children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s Syndrome, and anxiety-related issues. She uses animal-assisted therapy at her private 1.1 acre, 10-animal ranch in Agoura Hills, California. She also works at Bridges Academy, which is a school for Twice Exceptional students in grades 5-12 and runs summer camps for kids.

Samaritanmag spoke to Dr. Preuss to find out more about her remarkable use of animals in her therapy.

Your story is such a powerful example of the connection between animals and humans and an amazing way to show how animals can help save lives. So after this happened and you got Harvey certified, what was his next big assignment?

"I was working at Presbyterian Hospital at the time and he became a huge hit in the pediatric oncology ward. He was going bed to bed and they’d feed him and they’d play ball with him. We used him in the 'Read to my Dog' program where inner city kids who could not read would come in and read to him. They would sit with these dogs and read them story after story after story and practice and practice because the dogs didn’t pass judgment.  We would be sitting there and periodically, we would say, 'Oh, you know what? I think that word is this' or 'Try to sound that out.'"

Where else were you able to integrate Harvey into your work?

"I started integrating Harvey into my private practice in New York. I started with phobias of dogs because in New York City you can’t go anywhere without running into a dog, and you have to get on elevators and they’d make their parents wait until an elevator is empty, which is no fun when you’re in New York City.  We did a lot of that because Harvey was just really a gentle soul, so they could do just about anything with him. So, I used him for desensitization work.  I just really started seeing the impact he was having.  

“I also do a lot of family therapy work, especially with high conflict families, which are families who just, literally, could not sit in the same room together without screaming and arguing or cursing at each other. They will not behave that way if it is upsetting to a dog. So, I would bring Harvey in as kind of a mediator.  He would sit during the session and as long as they were petting him and keeping him calm, they would not scream at each other. It's a great tool for changing communication behaviors.

What is the psychology behind why people can be one way with an animal and another with their own family?

"Animals are a vulnerable species. They don’t have a voice of their own and they can’t really fight back and because of that vulnerability, they’re more sensitive to it. It's interesting because I do the same thing at the ranch.  People will behave completely differently around an animal then they will around their spouse or their children.  And that helped a lot because if they can do it then, then you know they have the skill and once you can point that out to them, then they’re more apt to do it when the animal is not around. "

What does Harvey do in your practice today?

"The ranch itself started one year ago and but I’ve been working with animal assisted therapy for over 10 years.  Harvey is still at the ranch, but he’s almost 13 and he worked with me up until about three years ago. He's just getting older and it just wasn’t fun anymore.  He definitely likes working with senior citizens still. He’s mostly a comfort animal now.  So, he’ll go in and they pet him and they hang out with him — they tell him stories and he listens.  Kids and puppies, though, are a little too much for him now.”

What was the next therapy animal you got?

"Then we got our second dog who is a Nikita, a Black Russian Terrier. She started coming to work as a puppy. She is just a complete love bug.  There is a never-ending supply of affection. And because she's a huge dog — she's 110 pounds —  as a puppy she was a big, floppy, gangly dog.  She would make all sorts of mistakes and she was pretty hyper and she had lots of energy.  So, I used her a lot of with my kids with ADHD."

Break that down for us on how that exactly helps kids with ADHD?

"We use Nikita to demonstrate the behavior the kids were doing. She’d come bouncing in the office, knock a chair over, knock the blocks over, dump my tea on the ground, all the things that these poor kids would also get accused of doing. Kind of like being a bull in the china shop. So, I would enlist the kids to help me train Nikita and then they can apply those skills to themselves. It was so much easier for them to do it with her than to directly be the target of the behavior. It’s very challenging to have that kind of insight especially when dealing with young kids."

So when kids see their own behavior in an animal like Nikita...

"So then they have compassion for the animal, and then they have compassion for themselves. It helps them change their behavior because they realize that they have to be more in control to be like a role model for the animal.  So, it’s more of skill building that way. I say to them, 'Well, if you’re running around and yelling, then she thinks it’s okay to run around and bark. So we have to really be a good example and really be a good role model for her to help her.'  And they will pull it together.  They will enlist every bit of energy that they have to hold it together to help the animal be a better puppy. And then once they develop the skill, you can generalize it."

Does it help the parents deal with their own rambunctious kids too?

"Yes. People don't scream at a puppy for being the way they are. No one is screaming at them or telling them that they’re dumb or lazy or stupid.  It’s always just adorable. Sometimes we don’t attribute as much willpower to an animal as we do to a human. Somehow to some people, when the child does it, it’s being willful and defiant but when an animal does it, it’s because they don’t know any better. If I can help the parent make the connection, they tend to be much more compassionate from that point forward with their own child."

Walk me through an example with somebody say with Asperger’ Syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder which affects social interaction and is characterized by a high intellect).

"One of the biggest challenges that someone with Asperger’s has is perspective thinking — really being able to step outside of themselves and understand the situation from someone else’s point of view.  And, they get into habits of monologue-ing about their favorite topic without reading the social cues and being able to say, oh they’re getting bored or they’re not liking this or maybe I should ask them about their day now.  That’s a really difficult skill. 

“So I use the animals because animals don’t have the social niceties that adults have where they’ll just put up with it and listen and listen. They will just simply walk away and go do something else. They don’t have the patience for it.  It's really good at cueing the child to start paying attention.  And, they’re generally more willing to modify their behavior for the animal then they are for their parents or for a teacher or even for me."

Which animals do you use for this?

"The goats are great for this. The kids will want to pet them or feed them when they want to pet them and when they want to feed them. But, the goats have no patience for that.  They do things on their own terms. It helps the kids see that.  It’s like, 'Okay, this is what you want. But what does Brutus [a long-haired Angora goat] want right now? What is he telling you right now that he wants?' He wants to play. He doesn’t want to sit and eat right now.' It’s teaching them compromise and it really makes them focus on what the other animal is signaling them, and picking up on social - non-verbal cues. Then, once they can do that, you can start generalizing to humans."

What other types of kids and issue do you work out with animals?

"I worked with a lot of twice exceptional (2e) kids that are extremely intellectually gifted. There is usually some social, emotional, or learning challenge that goes with being intellectually gifted, such as anxiety or the need for perfectionism. The horses are really, really great at that because they are very sensitive animals. So, they pick up on any anxiety that you have and start becoming very skittish because they perceive from you that there’s some kind of threat in the environment. 

Sami, and Arabian horses in particular, is very, very sensitive and he will pick up on any feelings of anxiety.  If you are not calm with him, he perceives the entire environment as a threat. He has a hard time listening and a hard time following directions. This really interferes with his intelligence because he knows what you’re asking him to do, but he can’t do it because he’s too wound up. The kids have to use their relaxation techniques or the breathing techniques that I teach them to calm themselves, to get him to be able to listen to what they’re asking."

Walk me through an exercise with Sami.

"Initially, they go up to him. Sometimes I have them on his back because they want him to go forward but they’re getting really nervous about what’s going on and he can’t pick up on the cues that they’re giving him.  He’s extremely well trained.  He knows exactly what it means if you squeeze his side. He knows you want him to go forward, but he gets to the place where he can’t.  And so they have to really calm themselves down and attend to their internal cues, which a lot of these kids are not particularly good at. Once they calm themselves down, the horse notices it, and he'll start to move forward. That’s the reward for them being able to calm themselves."

You also have a therapy pig, Karl. What is Karl's role on the ranch?

"I use him at a lot of different things right now, but his initial focus was in feeding therapy with kids who have food issues or food phobias or develop swallowing phobias. Thank goodness for Karl, he’ll eat just about anything and if they see him eat it they’re more willing to try it.  And they can pet him and relax and pet his belly and feed him and then they share food and they try different things together.  And, he’s been quite effective in that realm."

I see you also use your animals for the your summer camps too.

"Yes, and in fact, this will be the first year that it’s here in Los Angeles on the ranch. The kids will all be working with animals.  This year it’s going to be from June 30 through July 4." 

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