People may question or wonder how the presence of a pet in a counseling office aids in the therapeutic process. Many animals are currently being used in a multitude of settings but I will speak only of the one I work with, my dog!
Prior to introducing my golden retriever as a “therapy-assist” dog, I researched a great deal and the following came from my readings:
… allows client the ability to be more verbal
… helps to lower blood pressure
… feel less anxious
“Hmmm, I thought, I may just be onto something”! After a thorough and somewhat lengthy process of “home training” and preparation, my dog was introduced to my practice. Feedback I have received from clients has been and continues to be invaluable to me as a therapist, my four-legged assistant, Cooper, and most importantly to the process and progress of so many clients, some of whom were referred to me having made very little, if any, progress in prior treatment. Cooper helps allow for easier expression of emotions, approaching client at the start of session allows touch for clients to feel safer and more grounded. The unconditional love of a dog is so healing, especially for those clients who have never experienced it with a human. Additionally, clients present as more trusting, focused and aware of the social environment with a dog there, especially helpful for clients with PTSD, ADD/ADHD, as well as other anxiety disorders in concentrating!
In closing, I share with you my recall of one of the most tender, loving, and healing moments in Cooper’s role as a true therapy dog and as a seasoned clinician! Three years ago, a colleague referred a young adult to my practice, describing this patient as very bright, functioning well below capacity, with a long standing trauma history. Both client and my colleague felt stuck, “lacked a connection”, and the client accepted the referral, especially when she was told I have a dog in the office. First two sessions were much like any initial intake, although I made note of her soft voice, a whisper, as well as zero eye contact. She did, however, glance over at Cooper sleeping. She shared information as to how she trusts noone in the world, hates affection or being touched, severe PTSD and doubts anything will ever change for her. At that point, we both sat, in silence (for what felt like an eternity), but I saw her posture shift, shaking a bit, and then the most AMAZING thing happened. She began to cry.. no, sob.. wail actually and Cooper jumped to all four paws. I held my breath for a moment, especially given the info she had shared earlier but I then witnessed a little miracle. Cooper ever so gently rested his huge head on her knee and was still! This young woman, sobbing almost uncontrollably, took his head in her hands and held him tight! I sat and witnessed the beginning of a love affair between them develop AND she looked me straight in the eyes and said “I definitely want to come back again; can I”? Each week Cooper laid down right by her side. This client began to heal, express her emotions appropriately, and experience more openness and trust. Would this success story have unfolded without the help and unconditional care of the therapy dog????????