“At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.”– Lao Tzu
I recently visited the Elements Behavioral Health facilities in Malibu California. These included Promises, Spirit Lodge (located in Texas) the Sexual Recovery Institute, and the Professional Treatment Program, among others. Offered are top-notch progressive treatments for the various forms of chemical dependency, addictions, and dual diagnosis. The tour was a full day, and as I scanned through the printed out itinerary, I noticed the “Experiential with Wolf Therapy” scheduled for 2:00-3:00 at the Main house lawn. I figured it was a new type of treatment that I hadn’t heard of before and that wolf was another acronym to learn among the countless that the field so loves to use. As the day progressed, I began to realize that when they said wolf, they meant wolf… as in the wild animal; as in the big wild dog with fangs and love of full moons (a misconception, we would later learn). I began to get nervous.
You see, I’ve always had a bit of fear of dogs. Ever since getting bitten as a young boy by a neighbor’s dog, I’ve shied away from them. It was just a nip, really, and one that didn’t even cause a mark. But, nevertheless, that incident was the genesis of an ongoing fear that lasted at least up until the time I got my own dog as an adult. Certainly, I believed that I had long ago come to terms with the incident and the fear itself. So it was strange to feel those feelings again as the anticipation of meeting with the wolves that afternoon approached. It wasn’t dread, really, but more of a mounting anxiety, maybe on the level of worry over an upcoming exam or an important meeting. Of course, anxiety lives in the moments before, so even as I was really enjoying the rest of the tour and meeting with the clinicians, the feeling of impending something kept growing.
Sure enough, 2:00 arrived shortly after lunch. We headed over to meet the wolves. Wait, did you say wolves? There’s more than one? My mind was racing with thoughts of possibilities. What would we do? What is the wolf therapy anyway? Surely, they would be trained and we would be protected. Some of the other people on the tour started talking about those padded suits that trainers wear so they don’t get torn to shreds by rabid dogs. We aren’t doing that, are we? Outwardly, I tried my best to keep it together. We were told to put on our sneakers (would we be running?), and sweatshirts (is that enough protection?) and gathered in a circle on the lawn.
I tried to channel calmness and let the experience come to me. I knew I had no idea about what would happen. So I went with it. We were introduced to Teo Alfaro, the founder of Wolf Connection. He sat with us in our circle on the lawn and spoke to us about wolves. The calming effect was instantaneous. Here was the person who would be leading us through the experience. He exuded calm and something else… something like awe. As Teo spoke about the wolves and his experiences rescuing them, training them, and then utilizing them for therapeutic purposes with people, it became apparent how deep the wolf connection could be.
Wolves and humans have a connection that goes back more than 100,000 years. It is both a natural and spiritual connection. Because of this it is inherent within both species in the form of mutual adaptation. Teo told us that the bond between wolves and humans is very different from the bond between dogs and humans because dogs are domesticated animals bred by humans to serve humans. That process interrupted the natural bond, creating something man-made instead. This is not to say that the bond between dog and human is not real or deep; it’s just different. Teo told us we would feel this difference today, if we were open to it.
After going through a few rules which were essentially along the lines that these were not dogs so you couldn’t treat them like dogs. Don’t approach from above. Don’t reach out or come towards them aggressively. Basically, let them come to you. They will choose to interact with you when they (and you) are ready. Then he said. If you have anger and fear in your heart, they will know, and they will not come. Oh great, I guess they’ll figure me out pretty fast, I thought. But if you have pain, they will try to help you. Teo called for Maya and Max. Out they came with their trainers on large chain leashes. They had clearly been through this before. They stood silently as Teo spoke. We all just looked at them in awe.
Right away, Max began to peruse the crowd, sniffing around, and offering to be petted by the first and bravest of us to stretch out their hands. I was still nervous they’d sense my fear. Teo got us on our feet and took us on a hike into the Malibu woods. As we hiked, we did mindfulness exercises and tried to get into the mindset of the wolf. We keyed in to each of our senses, including smells, sounds and touch. And at each stop we learned a new Wolf Principle from Teo, heard stories of how the wolves had touched and helped people in pain, and more of us were chosen by Maya and Max to be friends.
The first Wolf Principle is: “Wolves are always totally OK with who they are.” Wolves do not have self-doubt, do not care what other wolves think of them, or worry about their power. These are distinctly human qualities. And at that point, it dawned on me that my fear and anxiety and history were getting in the way of the experience. I began to breathe more consciously. I embraced the surroundings, smelled the strong fragrance of the eucalyptus trees, heard the crackling of twigs and leaves beneath my sneakers, and felt the sun on my face and arms. I believe this is when I just let it go. Because, sure enough, that was when Maya came over to me for the first time.
I knelt down next to her, put out my hand for sniffing and started scratching her neck. I felt accepted. I felt honored. And I felt all of my fear melt away instantly. At that moment, I was so relieved and aware of my relief that I was basically filled with a sense of gratitude, to Maya, to Teo and to everyone around me. This was a profound experience. It was happening and I was aware it was happening. The feeling continued through the hike and through the rest of the day. I was riding a wave of gratitude and new perspective. It felt great.
I usually end with some sort of wrap-up lesson, but this time I’ll just let the experience speak for itself. Because I can’t really describe it any better. I don’t know how it happened or why it happened. I just know that it happened and how I feel about it. Maybe that’s enough. Please check out Teo and his wolves. If you feel like it make a donation to help him continue the work with the wolves. It is really amazing what they can do.
Andrew D. Kang, JD, LICSW, is a former attorney turned licensed psychotherapist. His practice, Boston Professionals Counseling, LLC, focuses on helping attorneys and professionals with the issues they face and is located in Boston, Massachusetts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.bostonprofessionalscounseling.com