What Exactly is Dog Assisted Therapy and How Does it Work?

Therapy Dog, Pet Assisted Therapy, Kryss Castle, LMFT

Healing of a furry kind, an interview by Anna Pirkl, LMFT, ATR, LAADC with Kryss Castle LMFT and Bella – Certified Therapy Dog.

I arrive at Kryss’s office and Bella greets me. I can tell she is excited to see me, yet, she does not jump on me, rush up to me, or cover me in doggie kisses. Instead she walks towards me slowly (especially for a dog).

She stops and sits within my reach, looking up at me, seeming to wait for my permission to interact more. I bend down and pet her head. Her body is still, just taking it in. She does not jump, scratch or even lick me, but I can tell by her eyes closed expression that she is happy to have the affection.

I feel connected to her. Bella keeps a respectful distance as we walk down the hallway. She lays down in a spot by the window in the office, eyes closed, to enjoy sun bathing as I interview Kryss.  

I notice that, on one hand, she is the typical sunbathing dog, eager for attention and connection. But on the other hand, she has given me more respect for my personal space than most dogs I have ever met.

So, I ask as Bella snores off and on, “what is a Therapy Dog?”  

Kryss explains that there are 3 different classifications of K9 assistance that should be clarified.  

Service Dogs

Most people are familiar with Service Dogs. These dogs are trained with a specific skill set for a specific task. Dogs can be trained to assist in a wide variety of tasks.   Seeing eye dogs assist people with vision impairment. Dogs can alert a diabetic owner to a drop in their blood sugar. Dogs whose owners suffer from seizure, can alert them of an impending seizure. Dogs can be trained to lay on top of a client’s chest if they are having a panic attack, and stay until the panic attack is over.  These service dogs undergo extensive training. They can be trained before they are given to their owner or trained together with the owner.

Emotional Support Dogs

Emotional Support Dogs are defined as any animal that anyone deems, that they personally benefit from. People suffering from anxiety, depression, or PTSD, for example, might find great comfort in an animal that loves you no matter what. According to Korin Miller,

“Their presence, their unconditional love, their warmth and softness to pet and hold are all thought to be calming and mood-boosting. The need to care for them provides structure, purpose, and being needed. They provide love and devotion without question or consequence. Their calmness provides a ‘mindfulness’ experience for their adult partners in a way that is often more effective than isolated, personal techniques.”

Read more about this is at https://www.self.com/story/what-do-emotional-support-animals-do

Research supports that dogs can be helpful to both our physical and mental health.

However, as it stands today, there is no specific skills training, or obedience training required. This has created some unfortunate issues, most particularly in public places.  Untrained dogs might use the airplanes aisles as a bathroom, show signs of aggression such as growling or excessive barking, and even biting. This can, of course, put others in danger.

Providing an Emotional support letter should be carefully considered to determine if having an ESA dog would be an integral part of the therapeutic treatment. ESA dogs should have obedience training if they are going to travel and be in places animals usually are not allowed

For more information see: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/animals-and-us/201607/emotional-support-animals-the-therapists-dilemma

Therapy Dogs

Therapy Dogs undergo extensive and expensive training and testing. These dogs are specifically trained to work in places like schools, hospitals and offices. Therapy Dogs International outline many requirements:

Step 1: Graduation certificates of Basic Obedience, Intermediate Obedience with a letter from the school attesting to the dog’s temperament. A letter of recommendation from an Animal Health Care Professional (Veterinarian). Letter(s) of recommendation from any institution(s) you are planning to visit.

Step 2: A therapy dog must be a friendly dog. Any mix or breed can be trained to provide comfort and affection to people in hospitals, retirement homes, schools, mental health institutions, airports, and many other settings. Dogs must be at least one year old to become a therapy dog.

Step 3: A tester/observer in your area test you and your dog. This test includes a handling portion which tests your dog’s basic good manners, demeanor, and your handling skills with and without their owner.

Step 4: After the handling portion of the test, you and your dog are supervised by a tester/observer during three visits with residents of medical facilities. Upon a successful completion of these visits and submission of your application paperwork, you and your dog may become a Therapy Team!

More detailed information can be found at http://www.tdi-dog.org/images/TestingBrochure.pdf

Therapy dogs are not trained in a specific healing task, per se. Their presence in the room provides a type of emotional support. They are trained to provide support while keeping the public safe.  

So what are the benefits and how does it work in session?

Kryss and I discussed how animals in general tend to help us be in the present. They require our attention in a way. How many times have you seen a dog and almost knew that if it could speak it would say: “hey look at me, play with me, pet me”? They bring us into the here and now.

As therapists we work hard to hold space for our clients and their stories. Kryss explains that the “dog’s non-judgmental presence in a room, while we pour out all our shame, can be extraordinarily healing. The best dogs really feel it, which is why Bella is nearing retirement. She has been known on occasion to put her paw or chin on someone going through something very difficult. She is then more tired than usual after difficult sessions and sleeps for much longer.”

Kryss describes how Bella’s presence specifically helps certain clients feel more at home in those first sessions.

“With Bella in my lap, the space feels more comfortable, like being at home versus a cold clinical office space.” Kryss emphasizes that she considers carefully whether bringing Bella to session is the right clinical choice. “The decision needs to be carefully weighed for upsides versus downsides, especially if the client has any phobias involving animals.” Kryss also explains that for a variety of reasons, she does not have Bella present for couples or families work. Bella is strictly for work in individual therapy.

I shared with Kryss my own personal experience with my therapist’s dog.

I shared how simply starring at its furry chest rising and falling as it lay sleeping in the office, provided me with a sense of reassurance, that I was going to be ok. I was able to talk about extremely difficult things with less emotion as I looked at her furry face, sound asleep. I thought to myself; ok the dog is fine, so I can be ok too.  

It is clear to me, that like many other therapeutic modalities in the mental health world, animals can be either a powerful healing force or potentially contraindicated and damaging.  

Not every dog can be a therapy dog. Not every therapist can work with therapy dogs. Not every emotional support pet, should be on a plane and not every client will benefit from animals.

Kryss says, and I agree, that “our world is filled with so much disconnection. With careful training and thoughtful application, animals can be the safe bridge we all need so badly.”  

As I leave the office, Bella gives me the same respectful space that she did before. She does not chase after, scratch, bite or bark.

Bella maintains a calm, kind presence of which I take a piece with me.

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