Cynthia Chandler has a secret weapon in her counseling toolbox. He’s furry, has four legs and facilitates breakthroughs with clients that Chandler suspects would not happen otherwise. His name is Rusty, and he’s one of Chandler’s cocker spaniels.
Rusty might not be able to talk, but there’s no doubt he connects with people, says Chandler, professor of counseling and director of the Center for Animal-Assisted Therapy at the University of North Texas.
Chandler, who is also one of the facilitators of the American Counseling Association’s Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network, recalls one boy with whom she worked when doing volunteer counseling at a local detention center. The boy had anger-management problems and often got into fights, and he wouldn’t respond to any of the counselors at the detention center. When Chandler showed up with Rusty, however, the boy quickly gravitated toward the dog.
At the request of the detention center, Chandler, along with Rusty, began conducting counseling sessions with the boy. Chandler allowed the boy 10 minutes of play with Rusty, followed by 20 to 30 minutes of counseling and then another 10 minutes of play. During the counseling segment of the meetings, Rusty would rest his head on the boy’s lap.
Rusty’s presence seemed to enable the boy to interact with Chandler. “He just opened up to me like you wouldn’t believe, and he wouldn’t open up to the other counselors at all,” she says. “So it was Rusty who built the relationship.” There was a scientific reason behind the boy’s ability to transfer the connection he felt with Rusty onto Chandler, she says, and one that went much deeper than forming a cute, cuddly bond with a dog.
After Chandler got one of her cocker spaniel puppies in 1999, she noticed how people at the park or on the street would approach and ask if they could pet her dog. Eventually, it clicked for Chandler that if her dog made people feel comfortable enough to approach a stranger, the technique might prove useful in her counseling work as well, serving as an effective icebreaker to lower clients’ anxiety levels. After reviewing the available research, she realized her observation only touched the surface.
Science has provided a psycho-physiological explanation for why humans and certain animals feel so comfortable together, says Chandler, the author of Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling, published by Routledge and due out in its second edition in September. Dogs, cats, horses and humans are all mammals and share the same social response system, she explains. Social contact, especially positive physical contact, releases a pleasure hormone called oxytocin, which has a healing, calming, soothing effect.
“That’s fantastic for a client who’s anxious and nervous and has difficulties in forming social relationships,” Chandler says. Anyone who has lost trust in other people, such as emotionally troubled kids who feel betrayed and abandoned, can benefit greatly from contact with a therapy animal, she says. Chandler references studies conducted in hospitals that show that patients who receive visits from pets heal faster, require less pain medication and have less scar tissue than those who don’t.
“This is the most important point that people need to understand — it’s a science,” Chandler says. “Up to this point, a lot of people have not really understood the science behind it and why it’s so powerful. It’s the release of oxytocin, [which] actually heals the body. It’s not just cute and fun; it’s science. Animals are here to stay in therapy if people embrace the science.”
In the case of the boy at the detention center, Chandler explains that oxytocin was being released as he interacted with Rusty. Because Chandler was present as this was happening, the boy was able to connect her with Rusty and bond with her, as well. “We cannot forget the science behind [animal-assisted therapy],” she says.
An instant connection
Amy Johnson, who facilitates the ACA Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network with Chandler and also directs the online animal-assisted therapy certificate program at Oakland University, has always loved dogs and children. Spending a week at one of the first “dogs-in-prison” programs for youth and witnessing how the kids’ tough exteriors melted away while interacting with the animals inspired an idea in Johnson, who is also a certified dog trainer. In 2005, she started an organization called Teacher’s Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together, which pairs at-risk youth with hard-to-adopt shelter dogs for training.
Teacher’s Pet operates in a school for students who are emotionally impaired and in three juvenile facilities for court-adjudicated youth. The organization also runs a summer camp for middle school students and a program for kids with autism on the Oakland campus in Michigan. The average length of each Teacher’s Pet program is 10 to 12 weeks, meeting twice per week for two hours each day. In the juvenile facilities in particular, the kids feel an immediate connection with the dogs because they share similar situations, Johnson says. “It’s kids with behavior problems and dogs with behavior problems, kids who are locked up and dogs who are locked up.”
The students are tasked with training the dogs to get them ready for adoption. The first hour of each session usually involves psychoeducational work with the students, with Johnson teaching them how to understand the dogs’ body language. Dogs and humans have very similar body language and expressions, Johnson says, so this exercise also assists kids in reading other people’s body language and understanding their intentions. Talking about the dogs’ lives, including whether they’ve been abused, neglected or put up for adoption, often opens up opportunities for Johnson to talk with the students about their own life experiences, which frequently mirror those of the dogs.
During the second hour of each session, the kids train the dogs, which is also effectively teaching the kids how to act and how not to act. For example, Johnson tells the kids that if they’re sitting on the ground, the dogs will view them as peers rather than as leaders. She instructs children who have low self-esteem that the dogs won’t respond to them if they’re hunched over and quiet. “Even if you don’t feel like you know what you’re doing, act like it,” Johnson tells the students. “Raise your voice. Stand up straight.” In the process of training the dogs, she says, the kids are “practicing better ways of interacting with others while getting feedback from the dogs.” Working with the dogs helps the kids to develop empathy, patience and impulse control, while also giving them a confidence boost, Johnson says.
Johnson describes the experience of a girl in one of the detention facilities who had some traits of borderline personality disorder. Both the girl’s mother and grandmother had lost custody of her, and at the detention center, she was prone to fights. The girl was participating in the Teacher’s Pet program and, one day after she got into more trouble, Johnson went to talk with her. “She really didn’t want much to do with me,” Johnson says, “so I changed the subject and asked her to tell me about the dog program. She said she didn’t want to talk about it, and she didn’t want to be in the program anyway. I knew what was coming even before the girl said it. She said, ‘I don’t want to be attached to that dog and have it taken away from me.’”
Johnson told the girl she was doing something wonderful for someone else by getting the dog ready for adoption and that through her own selflessness, she was helping others. The girl continued with the program, and when it came time for the dogs to “graduate,” she predictably expressed some sadness — but not because the dog she had trained was leaving. Instead, she was worried that the dog would think she had chosen to abandon it. “That was the first time I saw empathy with her,” Johnson says. “I attribute a large part of that to her working with the dog. I truly don’t believe we would have been able to make progress with her in that area without the dog.”
The Teacher’s Pet dogs assist kids in building empathy and perspective-taking, Johnson says, but the program also helps them learn to handle loss because they can’t keep the dogs after they train them. Johnson talks with the kids about their feelings when the dogs graduate. “It gives them a dry run through other losses they’ll have,” she says. “It gives them the skills to know how to deal with it.”
One student who had been removed from his mom and siblings was preparing to say goodbye to his dog. “He told me afterward, ‘It let me know that I can say goodbye to someone I love and it’s not the end of the world. It’s OK that I was with him only a short period of time, but I can love him forever,’” Johnson says. “If I had said cognitively, this is what we’re going to work on, it wouldn’t have been the same as experiencing it.”
A comfortable relationship
The most popular place to utilize animal-assisted therapy in counseling is in schools, Chandler says, “probably because that’s the most awkward social age for humans.” Kids from kindergarten on up can benefit, she says, both in special populations and in mainstream populations. She adds that research has found kids are more focused and better behaved in the classroom when an animal is present.
A school counselor might have a dog that kids can come in and pet, and while they’re there, the students can talk with the counselor about things that may be bothering them. It helps to normalize the experience of going to see the counselor, Chandler says, and interacting with a pet tends to calm kids.
A second likely place to incorporate animal-assisted therapy is in private practice, Chandler says. A client would come to see the counselor, and a pet would be present, whether a dog, a cat, a bird or another animal. The interaction could include nondirective activities, such as the client simply holding or petting the animal while talking to the counselor, or it could be more directive, such as asking the client to work with the animal to perform a command, which helps to build social skills and self-confidence, Chandler says.
Whether in private practice or in schools, animals help adolescents feel more comfortable with the counselor, Johnson says, because the animals deflect attention away from the client. In many cases, she says, young clients will watch how the dog interacts with the counselor. If the counselor is nice to the dog, Johnson says the kid might think, “Maybe she’ll be nice to me” or “She must be a nice person because the dog likes her.”
Kids can also project through the animals, Johnson says. “If the kid’s been abused, the counselor might say, ‘This is my dog. Do you know he had been abused when we first got him? What do you think he worried about most while living there?’
“‘Oh, I bet he was really scared, like he never knew when he might get hit,’ the kid might say. They’ll project their own feelings onto the dog.”
Horses can be utilized in private practice as well, Chandler says, although clients would most likely visit some kind of therapy ranch to work with them. “It’s not just about horseback riding,” Chandler says. “Before they ride, the client has to form a relationship with the horse. Everything the counselor does is motivated toward the client building a relationship with the animal, and that helps build the relationship with the counselor.”
Children with autism can often benefit from animal-assisted therapy, Johnson says. Working with an animal provides these children a safer audience on which to practice basic actions such as giving and receiving feedback and maintaining eye contact, she explains.
That holds true for a variety of other clients as well, Chandler says. “Mammals provide great practice for developing skills with humans,” she says. “The relationship with the animal is simpler for the client, and once they develop it with an animal, they can transfer that over to humans.”
Animal-assisted therapy is also utilized in nursing homes, detention centers, prisons and hospitals. According to Chandler, studies have shown that in prisons that incorporate animal-assisted programs, inmates’ self-esteem goes up, while behavior problems go down, and the tendency to return to the judicial system after release is greatly reduced.
Animals provide a safe release for people, Johnson says. “Humans don’t tend to always be trusting of each other. With a dog or other animal, you can go and hug them and sob. They won’t judge or tell anyone.”
Taking the plunge
Counselors interested in integrating animal-assisted therapy into their work have to do their homework, Johnson and Chandler say. Not every client will be comfortable around an animal, Johnson cautions, whether due to fear, cultural differences or allergies, and counselors should never push hesitant clients to work with therapy animals. Chandler adds that counselors should also screen clients to ensure they are emotionally ready to interact with pets appropriately rather than being aggressive or abusive.
On the flip side, counselors must be certain that their animal doesn’t pose any type of danger to clients, Johnson says. For example, even if a client gets angry or yells, the animal shouldn’t startle and react aggressively. Chandler advises that both the animal and the counselor should receive proper training. She points to the Delta Society, which offers individuals the opportunity to obtain registration as a pet partner. The person goes through a minimum of eight hours of training, while the pet has to pass a standardized 30-minute assessment. Therapy Dogs International offers an assessment for the pet but doesn’t provide training for the handler, which Chandler says is important.
Coverage for liability is another important piece of preparing for animal-assisted therapy. Because Johnson’s students train the dogs, she maintains dog training liability insurance on top of her counseling insurance. If a dog is certified through the Delta Society or Therapy Dogs International, those organizations offer liability insurance options as well, Johnson says. In addition, she asks her clients or parents of clients to sign a liability waiver as well as a waiver stating they won’t harm the animal and will behave appropriately around it.
Chandler also recommends that counselors pursue additional training in animal-assisted therapy. Her program at the University of North Texas and Johnson’s program at Oakland University both offer distance-learning opportunities.
Counselors should always be thinking about the animal’s best interests, Johnson adds. Be sensitive to recognizing when the animal is tired, she says, and avoid raising its stress level.
To counselors considering animal-assisted therapy, Johnson says it goes far beyond just having a dog in the room. “It requires having goals and objectives and utilizing the animal as a specific part of treatment,” she says. “Once you have goals, there should be a specific modality to obtain those goals, consistency of treatment, measurement tools and evaluation. For example, if you’re working with a child on social skills, it’s much safer to practice those skills with a dog. For a client who needs a good cry, it might feel less awkward for him or her to hug a dog as opposed to sitting across from someone in silence. Animals offer an opportunity for skin contact, which releases oxytocin, reducing blood pressure, heart rate and decreasing anxiety. When stress is lowered [and] anxieties are reduced, it allows for a safer, more open setting for the client to speak openly and freely.”
The ACA Animal-Assisted Therapy in Mental Health Interest Network is an electronic mailing list that offers counselors a chance to ask questions, obtain resource ideas, share literature, problem-solve and more, Johnson says. Visit counseling.org for more information (use the link to “Interest Networks” at the bottom of the page), or e-mail Holly Clubb at email@example.com to sign up.