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Animal Assisted Therapy      
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Animal Assisted Therapy

I have involved dogs as co-therapists in my work for over 30 years. Since then, I have shared with other helping professionals the amazing impact and healing influence they have had on the therapy sessions they have been part of. Animal Assisted Therapy has proven to be particularly helpful to children, youth and adults experiencing the consequences of a variety of stresses and difficult experiences, especially when related to different kinds of abuse, loss and trauma.

For those with whom it is appropriate and who are comfortable with dogs, my co-therapist standard poodles have been the greatest source of soothing, healing touch as they sit close by, intuitively finding just the right distance and amount of touch each person is comfortable with. When a client walks in the door, my dogs are experts at showing that they are pleased to see him, letting him know clearly that his presence is important to them. I recall a child looking at me and saying with a mixture of wonder and pleasant surprise: ‘‘He really likes me, you know.’’ Their barking at the sound of outside noises has helped reassure many, whose lives had been threatened, that they are safe in the playroom because no one will be allowed in. Whatever each person may be involved in, my co-therapists stay close by and provide their calm, relaxed, and reassuring presence.

I had always wanted a dog, but my image was of a husky/wolf type dog. My fiancÚ suggested I consider a Standard Poodle and get over my prejudice of what a poodle was like. So in 1980, my mother-in-law gifted me with the puppy of my choice as a wedding present, we started looking for it and went to visit a breeder who had one Standard Poodle puppy available. She put the puppy on my lap and that was that. He went everywhere with me. If he was not welcome, we left, even when I worked for the government and attended staff meetings.

I then witnessed what happened to the tough teenagers I was working with at the time when they saw a puppy. Their tough demeanours melted away, just like that, as they sat on the floor with the puppy, giggling. As we went for long walks in the woods and on the beautiful sandy Vancouver beaches at low tide, where we saw and heard eagles and blue herons, they were able to share painful things they had been avoidant of for a very long time. They were also energized, more connected to their hands, their feet and their strength. They ended the sessions feeling lighter with shiny eyes and colour on their cheeks. Monseigneur was loved by all, whether a tough youth with tattoos or a shy, fearful young child.

I am pleased to see that animal assisted therapy, since then, is finally becoming accepted and not an oddity. I would certainly like to contribute to this field what my co-therapists have taught me. I have always called them my co-therapists and treated them as such. I have great trouble with the term “using” as I have trouble with the word “pet”. They imply a purely human focused relationship. We have to shift our way of thinking about animals and all of nature, as someone we have a respectful relationship with rather than something we use for our own benefit. I cringe at the thought of what has been done and continues to be done to animals in the name of research.

As with any co-therapist, we continue to develop our way of communicating, as we learn and grow together. We work together in a way that benefits everyone involved. Although I am the one who leads and makes the final decision as to the course of a session, I take my co-therapists’ expertise into consideration. I listen to and respect their particular point of view and abilities. I also know that it is a learning process, that they have their own limitations, sensitivities, inclinations and their own unique gifts. The less experience they have, the more guidance they will need from me.

We work together from the time they are 8 weeks old. They all take part in “in -service training”. This has not been without challenges and much learning on my part, each puppy being so different from the other. Now that more humane training is available, I take them for basic training and that has been very helpful. My co-therapists also assist with the seminars and workshops, both at my Centre and in other locations that I can drive to. I do not take them with me if I have to fly.

My first dog, Monseigneur, was very gifted. He was not afraid of anything, didn't impose himself but still approached people. He was steady and stayed calm under all circumstances with all kinds of noises. He was extremely intuitive and affectionate. Being my first dog, I assumed it was how any dog of this breed raised in the same way would be. My second dog, Dauphine, was his daughter, but was very different. She was very sensitive. I had to adjust to her and allow her to bring what she had to give, her own gifts rather than a repeat of what I had seen Monseigneur do.

I make sure that my dogs' welfare always comes first. I owe it to them to protect them, and watch for the degree of stress a situation can cause them. If I think the situation is too stressful or unsafe for them, I remove them to a safe place. As well, if the child/client is afraid or uncomfortable with dogs, then my co-therapists do not come to the session. It has to be a positive and safe experience for everyone involved.

As I started teaching and people saw and experienced the impact of my work with my co-therapists, they began to get Poodles or bring their dogs to their workplace or practice, and at times, later, complained it did not work for them, not realizing all that had been involved in preparing a dog to become a co-therapist. Each dog has his or her own gifts as well as things that are difficult for him/her and it is essential to not demand them to be something they are not because that suits us, because that makes us look good. I have witnessed too much harm being done or perpetuated that way. I have always tried to expose them to many things and at the same time have always been vigilant not to ask too much of them. In this way, I can say that, all my co-therapists have enjoyed the healing work as much as I have. I have been embarrassed a few times, as I learned to adjust the right balance of freedom and structure for all involved in each situation. Having one or two co-therapists has demanded of me to be more responsive to each moment and each being, each relationship I have made myself responsible for.

I have now had six different co-therapists: Monseigneur, Dauphine, Bijou, Yannick, Fleur, and Dauphin, the only one alive now. When Monseigneur was three years old, Dauphine joined us and I started having two co-therapists, which has advantages, but can also be more complex and demanding. When each of my co-therapists died, the most challenging and continuous learning has been to be with my grief. Not only did we live and sleep together, we worked together. It takes a while before the missing hurts less and less and little by little is replaced by the feeling that indeed I now have a litter of puppies in my heart. In many situations, after all these years, I still ask myself when I feel stuck: what would Bijou do? She was particularly gifted with people who had experienced interpersonal trauma at a young age and needed the right combination of nurturing warmth and firm limits.

When the time eventually comes for a new puppy to enter our life, I have learned that although I am looking for some specific qualities, I must be vigilant that I am not searching for the one who has just passed on. Fleur died last fall and I expect it will take me a long time before I can trust myself not be looking for her in my next puppy.

I have witnessed that, despite all of the obstacles, the drive to form strong affectional bonds, to love and be loved, and for growth and healing is as tenacious as the child who keeps on falling and getting up until she can walk. It is as powerful as the drive of the plant that grows through concrete to reach the sunlight and as compelling as the instinct of migrating birds to come home. We can facilitate the awakening and reconnection to this drive so that our clients will discover the power of their resiliency. They can count on this power to guide them as they learn to live with their pain more healthily and learn to find and maintain the strength and resolve to gradually transform their painful and traumatic beginnings. I have also witnessed over and again what a profound influence on such a process my co-therapists (Monseigneur, Dauphine, Bijou, Yannick, Fleur and Dauphin) have had and continue to have.

Animal Assisted Therapy
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     Contact the Centre For Expressive Therapy

Marie-JosÚ Dhaese Ph.D., RCC, ATR, RPT-S, CPT-S
Phone: (250) 248-1290
  Email: mariejosedhaese@gmail.com
846 San Malo Crescent
Parksville, British Columbia
V9P 1S5