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Leading By Example, in the 21st Century...

The Dog Yard Method of Counseling from Niklolai

Working With Dogs as an Approach to Counseling (Rough draft)


This will be a third part if my effort to define and expand my theoretical approach to counseling. Of course it will be based on my upbringing, my parents and siblings, but also my education, especially my study of history and philosophy. (American history and existentialism in particular).

But I am also working other activities into my approach, especially activities that are hands on and involve getting new experience. Mushing and working with dogs in a case in point.


Last year, in Nome, I try to define my approach to counseling from a musher's perspective.


A few years ago, in Tuluksak, I attempted to integrate the Fish Camp experience into my approach to teaching and counseling:


Now the goal is to work in the experience of spending time with sled dogs as art of the process of healing and growth.


The idea is quite simple: spending time with the dogs is good therapy. It allows an individual who is feeling stress or anxiety a chance to get in touch with their feelings and have a positive way to express those feelings in a constructive way. 

Many vets who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are having trouble transitioning to civilian life and fully 1/3 of vets have some type of PTSD. (Citation needed)  Spending time with dogs in a variety of settings can be very therapeutic, very cathartic.

When we (the TOTKS students) go down to the dog yard it is a time to be intentional about what we are doing. It is akin to a meditation session where a person focuses on breathing and their thoughts. When with the dogs it is good to focus on how one feels while expressing those feelings to the dogs. Dogs can sense how you are feelings and they will express the feelings in a reciprocal way.


Students also work to keep the dog yard clean. They pick up poop and rake up old straw. They bring in new straw and are sure the dogs have a warm and dry bedding. At feeding time a fire has to be made and water warmed to mix with the dog-food. The dogs also get a snack of frozen salmon. Feeding is a time of energy and dynamism.


IN the process of visiting the dog-yard that the students develop work ethic, get fresh air, and work on expressing feelings in a positive way. It is a constructive and healthy activity. Students work on emotional and mental well being while participating in a traditional activity. (Mushing was an integral part of traditional Athabaskan life).


Mushing can also be an important part of a balanced curriculum. The core classes are academic and often the curriculum is online. A class like mushing is hands-on and experiential and gives the students a nice break from the classroom. The Iditarod web site ( is a good source of info on mushing as well as the Iditarod School District web site (


So when I talk about a mushing approach to counseling or adding working with dogs to my theoretical approach to counseling, I am talking about it in terms of healing and mental well-being. I am talking about teaching and learning and helping students stay academically healthy. It will have a focus on place-based education and using local experts to pass on knowledge. The dog yard is a great place to learn and working with dogs can be a great place to have as a focal point for myriad activities.


In this essay:, I talked about using the Fish Camp as focal point for healing. Including in this could be the Talking Circle, the Men’s House (quasiq) as well as the concept of Yuuyaraq. (The way of the human being). Out at Old Minto, led by Ray Barnhart and the Athabaskan Elders, a great model was created for place based education and utilizing the knowledge of the elders.


And in , I tried to show how one musher, Ally (Ali) Zirkle, gave us a powerful lesson on life and existentialism.  It is a good resource for place placed counseling.

One of my goals is to work with vets and help in their healing. I also want to work with at risk students and help them beat the odds. I think a solid mushing program as using dogs as basis for counseling activities will lead to positive outcomes.

So as I embark on the last 20% of my counseling education program, it will be a goal of my to integrate work with dogs in my approach to counseling. For me it is about healing and growth. Working with dogs is as good as any approach when we are talking about the process that leads to healing.


Yours in healing and counseling,


MB and the kids from somewhere.

PS- Ray Barnnhardt once said that the key is to teach through culture not just about culture. It is important to each out to local experts and utilize the knowledge of the elders.

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Comment by Mark J Biberg on July 2, 2015 at 1:48am

I have always liked this essay as having a a bit of something for everybody, a portal for each of us, a path to healing

Comment by Mark J Biberg on February 15, 2015 at 8:50am

This is an update I wrote after reading the "The Night of the Gun" the memoirs of the late David Carr ( NY Times , Mpls culture, etc.) and it resonated with me and caused me to think of my counseling education program; my program has been spread out over 4 years and I am about 80% done; the constant has been my theoretical approach, or my creation/ forming of an approach to counseling and healing; my approach will be eclectic and will include a lot of the same things that are are of my philosophy of teaching; things like makin connections with students, using culture as  basis for making connections, student/ client centered, use of history and philosophy , use of biography and great books, etc. as uses/ activities that will lead to possible counseling results; culture (especially Alaskan subsistence culture) will be a focal point of this approach;

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