Based on media portrayals and folklore, we’re led to believe that people and wolves are arch enemies that compete for food and resources. Science has a different story to tell – one not only of coexistence but even cooperation.
Today, wild spaces are dwindling and wolf populations have been slow to rebound from near extinction, but people continue to benefit from interactions with these smart, sensitive creatures. For most of us, our beloved dogs – direct descendants of wolves – are the closest we’ll ever get to a wolf. Wolf Connection, an innovative wolf therapy program and wolfdog rescue in the high desert north of Los Angeles, seeks to change that.
Wolfdogs as Therapy Animals
When the wolfdog rescue first opened in 2009, founder Teo Alfero sought to educate and empower young people by simply allowing them to spend time with the animals. Four years later, it has evolved into a therapeutic program with a set of “wolf principles,” or lessons humans can learn from wolves. Wolf Connection now serves a number of specialized populations, ranging from abused and neglected foster care children and juvenile delinquents to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and people struggling with drug addiction.
When Promises Treatment Centers heard about Wolf Connection, we knew rescued wolfdogs could make an impact on the young adults at our addiction treatment program in West Los Angeles.
“When the young adults from Promises come up here, the main priority is to get them out of their own story,” says Wolf Connection founder Teo Alfero. “We take them out for hikes and present them with projects they’ve never done before and animals they’ve never been in the presence of. They learn to approach things in a completely different way – not using behaviors they’ve been using until now but entirely new ones.”
One of the challenges in working with young adults is getting them engaged in treatment. Working with wolfdogs allows them to lay down their defenses and immerse themselves in the present moment. In that moment, they are more open to trusting others and listening to what they have to say and, just like the wolfdogs, making the most of a second chance at life.
“What happens here is really magic,” says Wolf Connection’s general manager Steve Wastell. “We have kids come here with this wall up that nothing can get through. They’re totally disconnected. Then you connect them with a pack of wolves and all of a sudden those walls drop.”
A day of hiking in the woods with wolfdogs is fun, and there is a certain thrill factor in being around wolves. But wolf therapy is much more than a fun day away from the four walls of rehab. From their interactions with wolves, addicts make progress toward rebuilding the empathy deficits caused by addiction, managing their emotions and impulses through greater self-awareness, and trusting their treatment providers and the recovery process – and of course, having fun without drugs or alcohol.
The Ancient Bond Between People and Wolves
In the field of addiction treatment, we’ve long known that horses, dogs and other animals can be highly effective co-therapists. Working with wolfdogs is a logical extension of this therapeutic approach – one that has made a lasting impression on the young people at Promises. In addition to the well-established benefits of animal-assisted therapy, such as trust, empathy, acceptance, teamwork and communication, there is a deep connection that stems from the long-standing relationship humans have had with wolves.
“Researchers suggest that after so many generations of co-evolution, our connection with wolves is at the DNA level, meaning when you see one of these animals you have a natural instinct to connect and to nurture and to bond,” Alfero explains. “This takes all of the clients we’ve worked with immediately to a primal level beneath all of the abuse, neglect or negative learned behavior. At this primal level there’s a natural openness to connect with these animals and to consider a new way of being.”
Thousands of years ago, man and wolf were drawn together as allies and eventually companions. Native Americans held the wolf in high regard, incorporating it into their spiritual rituals and legends and depicting man and wolf joined as one creature in their art and stories. Given the similarities in our ways of life – for example, living in packs or families and building dens or homes – some scientists believe that many of the behaviors that make us human were inherited not from our primate ancestors, but from wolves.
So although wolves and recovering addicts may seem like an unlikely pair, the bond between them runs deep. Having been rescued from dire circumstances themselves, the wolfdogs are living embodiments of hope at a time when recovering addicts need it most.