Animal-assisted therapy approach takes the practice another step


A client works with one of the many rescue animals at Ranch Hand Rescue.
(Photos courtesy Ranch Hand Rescue)


JAMES RUSSELL  |  Staff Writer

Ranch Hand Rescue founder Bob Williams had a stroke 10 years ago.

The Motorola executive had climbed the corporate ladder for years, becoming one of the company’s leading diversity experts.

But the stroke changed him, and ultimately changed his career path.

“I saw my own mortality,” he said. “I wanted to do good. I wanted to save animals and help people.”

Driven by his love for animals and advocacy for the underdog, he founded Ranch Hand Rescue, a non-profit counseling center and animal sanctuary in Argyle north of Fort Worth. Prioritizing the least among us, counselors specialize in traumatized youth. Many clients come from their partner agencies, including Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Denton and County Juvenile Services. Their clients suffer from mental health issues, primarily trauma from physical or sexual abuse. But some are also homeless. Others struggle with addiction. Often a high proportion of their LGBT youth clients may struggle with more than one trauma.

Not only does Ranch Hand take on the hardest cases, they provide help through animal and equine-assisted therapy.

The increasingly popular practice explores clients’ emotional, mental and social issues, according to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, an international certification and education agency.

But Williams points out their approach is also controversial. The animals are also broken.

The animals may have been brutally beaten or starved. They’re as broken as many clients.

“I take animals near death,” he said. “When people ask why, I say ‘Just because they’re blind or have cancer doesn’t mean their lives are less important.’”


Above left, Ranch Hand Rescue President and CEO embraces one of the sanctuary’s rescued horses. Emmy award actress Doris Roberts, right, serves as RHR’s spokesperson.

‘Relationship facilitation’

Sitting in an office with a stranger can often be intimidating or even triggering, if a client didn’t voluntarily seek therapy. Ranch Hand’s approach mixes traditional and progressive therapeutic practices. Their counseling approach is relationship-based, said Ranch Hand’s Clinical Director Cathy Champ.

A typical first session at Ranch Hand involves introducing the alpacas, donkeys, ducks, llamas, horses and other animals to the client. The client then cultivates a relationship with an animal. A therapist monitors each session.

Sessions can range from a few sessions to once a week. Sliding scale rates are available for individual clients.

“A relationship could be with a horse with a broken ankle or a duck,” she said. She loves working with animals as much as she enjoys working with clients.

“Working with animals is a genuine approach to counseling. The feelings associated with and process are so genuine,” she said.

When cultivating relationships, said Ranch Hand counselor David Lawson, clients are also exploring their personal identity.

“[The process] is awesome, especially for younger people and anyone with trust or relationship problems,” he said.

“Barriers come down when you work with animals. Conversations happen as you develop relationships.”

The therapist grows along with the client too.

“Therapists are drawn to animal-assisted therapy because it gets you in touch with your roots,” he said.

Working with LGBT youth

All relationships are important at Ranch Hand. But the relationship with LGBT youth is personal for Lawson and Williams.

Lawson overcame a lot as a gay man who struggled with a drug addiction.

“There’s no group of kids who are more systematically abused than LGBT kids,” he said. “Whether covert or overt, kids absorb the sense they are second rate and have no value. They tell themselves, ‘I am second rate.’ ”

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 92 percent of LGBT youth hear negative messages about their identity, mostly in school or their peers. 34 percent of LGBT youth report emotional or physical abuse by their families, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Additional research from Lambda Legal reveal between 25 to 40 percent of out LGBT youth is homeless.

Williams knows those percentages are likely higher because many youth won’t report their experience.

“So many cases of abuse or eating disorders are underreported among LGBT youth. They’re more likely to tell the animals these feelings first,” Williams said.

An estimated 80 percent of the center’s LGBT youth are covered by scholarships, many arranged by Williams.

“There’s so much we don’t talk about in the LGBT community,” he said. “Parents are still kicking their kids out because they don’t get LGBT youth. I wouldn’t have thought 20 years ago we’d still see it happen.”

Focusing on one issue at a time, even when facing the most complex issues, makes the work easier. But Williams also remembers to think back to his stroke 10 years ago, when he faced mortality.

“I’m promoting healing,” he said. “Ranch Hand Rescue is the greatest thing I’ve ever done to help animals and people.”


Ranch Hand Rescue Counseling Center and Animal Sanctuary
8827 Highway 377 South, Argyle

Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association


  Adoption resources

The Humane Society of North Texas, with four Tarrant County locations, takes in animals in need from anywhere.

While they’re best known as a great place to find a special cat or dog, they’ve also taken in bears, birds, lizards and horses. They found a home for a camel in a sanctuary and placed a tiger in his new home. Staff members are experienced with exotic animals. Earlier this year, they rescued 140 donkeys.

Because of the large number of donkeys they still have, they’re running a $100 adoption special.

“If it’s stray or abandoned, we intervene,” said Whitney Hanson, director of development and communication. “Our equine program is growing.”

Working with law enforcement, the Humane Society has an investigation team to seize abused animals. The donkeys and horses are housed at four equine facilities that organization owns.

Most people come to the Humane Society for dogs and cats. Dogs are evaluated and none with a history of biting are placed for adoption.

The SPCA employs behavior specialists to do an assessment with animals it takes in. Stephanie Knight said some animals are super-shy and won’t warm up to people while others may be more aggressive. They work with a team of volunteer fosters who work with those animals anywhere from two weeks to months.

“We do whatever we can to make it work,” Knight said. “They’re a great team of volunteers.”

They prefer animals are not adopted for someone else. Gift certificates are available for someone who wants to give a pet as a gift, but the SPCA prefers people don’t adopt for someone else.

Knight said look under the news tab on the website for vaccination specials usually on Sundays. The clinics aren’t prepared to do emergency veterinary work, but are good place to get an animal spayed or neutered and up to date on vaccines at a low cost.

— David Taffet

Humane Society of North Texas
363 Keller Parkway, Keller
1840 E. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth
330 Rufe Snow, Keller
9009 Benbrook Blvd. (Hwy 377 S), Benbrook
Fee: $30-285, $95 average.
$15 July special: all dogs over 30 lbs. depending on age, breed, length of stay
Includes: microchip, vaccinations, heartworm, treatment, vet exam, one month  pet health insurance

Operation Kindness
3201 Earhart Drive, Carrollton
No-kill shelter
Cats: $125; Dogs: $175
Includes: Vaccinations, microchip, spay/neuter

Dallas Animal Services Dallas Animal Services,
1818 N. Westmoreland Road, Dallas
PetSmart, 16821 N. Coit Road, Dallas
Any dog or puppy: $85; Any cat or kitten: $55
Senior discount for people over 65 years old
getting pets over 6 years old:
Dogs: $43; Cats: $27
Includes: Spay/neuter, microchip, vaccinations
Other services: Takes in stray animals to be reunited with their owners

2400 Lone Star Drive
8411 Stacy Road/FM 720, McKinney
Clinic: 4830 Village Fair Drive
No-kill shelter
Dogs: Puppies 0-6 months: $125-$250
Adult dogs 6 months or older: $75-$125
VIP dogs (available more than 30 days): $50
Senior dogs 7 years and older: $50
Cats: Kittens: $125; Cats: $75
July special: senior cats and cats who have been there 30 days are free at the McKinney location
only through the end of the month.
Includes: Vaccinations, Flea/tick treatment, Heartworm test, preventive for dogs, Behavior assessment for dogs,
Spay/neuter, microchip
Other services: Low cost spay and neuter, clinic, livestock adoptions

Fort Worth Animal Care & Control Center
4900 Martin St., Fort Worth
PetSmart, 4800 SW Loop 820, Fort Worth
PetSmart, 2901 Texas Sage Trail, Fort Worth
Dogs: $49; Cats: $25
Includes: Health and temperament assessment, Spay/neuter, vaccinated, microchip, licensed
Other services: Takes in stray animals to be reunited with their owners

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 17, 2015.