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California wolf therapy helps teens learn forgiveness, acceptance and trust

Wolf-dog therapy helps troubled teens express emotion and gain confidence 05:42

Edward Amaya says he felt as if he had gained a superpower following his time spent with wolves and wolf-dogs at Wolf Connection, a California-based wild animal sanctuary.

As a child, the 19-year-old experienced tragic losses of relatives, but says his participation in the unique therapy helped him reach a turning point. 

"As a kid, I lost a lot of people, I watched family members pass away," he told CBS News Correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti. "I had my only uncle that took care of me, in my arms, pass away. I held onto those deaths very close. And I think that's probably why I didn't socialize cause I didn't want that to happen again."

After joining a medicine wheel, which is a sacred space where it's believed the body and spirit come together for healing, at the program, he said he began to cry. 

"Everything just came out," Amaya said. "It felt like I just let like a hundred pounds off my shoulders."

Amaya now works with Wolf Connection, participating in the eight-week program north of Los Angeles, California. 

The program is led by trained staff who lead exercises to help young people learn life lessons about forgiveness, acceptance, confidence and trust. In one activity, teenagers choose a rock to embody their inner turmoil and lug it up a mountain before throwing the rock off of the mountain's edge and symbolically releasing their pain.

"The wolves that come here have an array of trauma and we see the same thing in the youth that come here from severe physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and then also young people who have never been able to be seen because the humans in their life want them to be something other than who they are," Amanda Beer, a licensed psychologist and Wolf Connection's director, told Vigliotti. 

For some participants, like Julia Gomez, just being in the presence of wolves has been influential at the program. 

Gomez, who now also works with Wolf Connection, says she felt neglected as a child and battles anxiety and depression. But one of the sanctuary's wolves who has three legs has especially inspired her to continue on. 

"Even though she was missing one of her limbs, she was still a warrior which really connected to me," Gomez said. "She gave me the courage to keep persevering."

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Julia Gomez participates at Wolf Connection in southern California. CBS Mornings

Teo Alfaro, the program's founder and CEO, says Wolf Connection's methods are research-based and supports what Indigenous tribes have long-recognized: Humans and wolves have worked together for quite some time. 

He says wolves can help humans to "activate [the] primal side of us that is more connected, more grounded, more clear-minded. "We consider the wolf the healer of the human heart," he said. 

According to Alfaro, who studies the animals' behavior says the organization "puts thousands of hours on each wolf before they become part of the program." He says the program has had zero incidents in its 13-year history.

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