Guest Column: Pets in Therapeutic Practice

Sep 18, 2015 by Rhonda McCloud. PsyD
Rhonda McCloud, PsyD
Rhonda McCloud and therapy canine, Sofia

Sigmund Freud may be the first psychotherapist to use a pet in practice, although perhaps accidently. His canine, Fijo, calmed his clients during therapy sessions and provided them with security and acceptance, facilitating the psychoanalysis process.

In the 1960s, Boris Levinson, the founder of pet-facilitated therapy, published in the journal Mental Hygiene, “The Canine as a ‘Co-therapist.’” He also published a book titled Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy. Levinson conducted the first study of 425 psychotherapists in New York who answered a questionnaire regarding their use of pets in their therapy sessions, with 33 percent reporting that they used pets a “therapeutic aids” and 75 percent recommending keeping pets in home to improve mental health symptoms.

Today it is unknown how many therapists use their own pets in practice, but more people are reading and learning more about pet therapy. In fact, there are thousands of books on the topic.

I am a mental health professional who has a trained therapy canine, a beagle named Sofia. By the time she was two years old, she had completed her basic, advanced and intermediate classes, and passed her “Canine Good Citizen” test and her therapy canine evaluation. Sofia and I have been doing pet therapy visits for the past seven years in a variety of settings, with various populations.

THE JOYS OF PETS IN PRACTICE The greatest professional joy of doing pet therapy with Sofia is working with foster children. I started taking Sofia with me to foster homes when children were first placed with new foster parents. If they didn’t have pets in their homes, I would take Sofia with me and let them pet her while I read them Sofia’s story. (I wrote a self-help book, Visit with Sofia, Open Your Heart and Have a Pawsitive Life, while I was enrolled in a media psychology class at CalSouthern. It is a story about how Sofia lost her home, too, and had to move, but was able to achieve her dream of becoming a therapy dog.) The children instantly connect with us and reading and having Sofia sit next to them helps build rapport between the child, the foster parent, me and Sofia. I read her book to foster children, children at local libraries, seniors in nursing homes, and even to people in hospitals. One boy took his Sofia book with him to his various placements before getting adopted. His adopted mother told me that he told her that Sofia was his dog.

Once I went to the hospital for the visit to a senior and could not take Sofia with me, but took her book instead. At the hospital I decided to read the woman Sofia’s book and she got a smile on her face. There was a blood pressure monitor in the room and by the time I was finished reading the book, her blood pressure was much lower. (There is research that supports the concept that petting a canine can reduce blood pressure.)

Sofia is getting close to retirement, so I have started training two new Labrador mixes, Busy and Mama. They will become certified psychiatric service dogs with training from the DogWish Organization in Hemet, California. While not all canines can be trained to be psychiatric service canines, there are many other forms of therapy canines. An emotional support animal (ESA) is a companion animal for one specific person and offers therapeutic benefits such as reducing panic and anxiety symptoms related to a mental or psychiatric disability. Therapy canines are trained canines that assist many different people in various settings.

As a mental health professional utilizing a pet in practice, it is important to remember to remain ethical, maintain liability insurance and know the signs of stress in an animal: dilated pupils, redness in the eyes and staring at handler. (A more complete list of signs of stress can be found here.)


TYPES OF CANINE INTERVENTIONS Past and current literature provides mental health professionals with an understanding of canine interventions that can be used to decrease anxiety, depressive symptoms, loneliness, psychotropic medication usage, isolation, as well as to improve socialization, sense of safety, verbal interaction and self-worth. There is research that suggests that well-trained canines in a therapeutic practice can help children with autism, veterans with PTSD, and seniors with depression and dementia.

“Ambulatory therapy” involves moving the session from inside an office to office in the field—taking the client and the canine on a walk. The primary benefit is that the client, perhaps a child, can experience and sense the environment in a more three-dimensional way to awaken the child’s awareness of their surroundings and be in the “now” of the moment. When the therapist observes this new interaction, there often is an increase of therapeutic insights.

In 2003, the Delta Society discovered that pets helped people in several ways. Animals help brighten mood, provide pleasure and affection and assist in addressing grief and loss issues. Animals also improve social skills, self-esteem, self-worth, reality orientation, cooperation, memory and recall, ability to trust, problem-solving ability and increase the ability to express feelings. They also decrease manipulative behaviors and some repetitive behaviors in children with autism. Pets can help to reduce general anxiety and loneliness.

Mental health professionals can use animals in several canine-assisted counseling techniques. For example, have the client give and receive love and affection with a canine (pet and hold the animal), learn gentle ways to handle a canine, learn to communicate with a canine or learn how canines learn. Clients can also observe and discuss canines’ responses to human behavior with the therapist and generalize canine behavior to human circumstances. Clients can learn gentle touch or how to stay in the “here and now” when brushing a canine. Learning proper care, feeding, grooming, walking and engaging the canine in play can help a client learn how to follow a routine.

A therapist can use an animal in therapy to facilitate communication by encouraging the client to talk to the canine, talk about the canine and share canine stories. Clients can learn social skills by taking the canine on a supervised walk and introducing the canines to others.

Rhonda, Dr. Andrews and Levi
Rhonda McCloud with her Doctoral Project chair, Dr. Kate Andrews and therapy canine, Levi

PETS AND THERAPEUTIC ORIENTATIONS There are a variety of therapeutic orientations that can utilize canines to complement traditional approaches. A person-centered therapist can reflect or comment on his or her relationship with the canine, spontaneously make comments on the client-canine interaction, incorporate the canine into questions about the client-canine relationship to promote more client reflection, encourage the client to reproduce an experience where the canine plays a particular role, have the canine present without any directive interventions, and allow the canine to engage spontaneously with the client to promote a therapeutic conversation.

The goal of the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) practitioner is to aid the client in identifying and changing irrational beliefs that are influencing or impairing feelings and behaviors. A CBT therapist can invite the client to work with the canine during the therapy session, coaching the client to ask the canine to perform tricks. The key intervention is the successive approximation based on behavioral shaping, in which the client practices incremental changes in the direction of the desired treatment goal or outcome. Another intervention is cognitive restructuring, or identifying and modifying patterns of thoughts and beliefs that contribute to the client’s emotional and behavioral dysfunction.

Adlerian canine-assisted interventions focus on helping to motivate the client by social relatedness to achieve “superiority” that is motivated by the client’s inferiority feelings within the family and community. Striving to attain this can be either functional or dysfunctional. A couple of key Adlerian canine-assisted techniques include the counselor commenting on the client-canine interaction. The Adlerian therapist could share information about the canine’s family history and share other history related to the canine or utilize questions about the client-canine relationship to foster the canine to be in the “counselor” role.

Gestalt counseling and canine-assisted interventions will help the client become fully aware and present. Gestalt counselors encourage clients to touch and pet the canine, prompt clients to tell the canines about their concerns, encourage the client to make up stories involving the therapy canine, create structured activities with the canine and client, and allow the counselor to create a free-flowing session so the client and canine can have moments to facilitate a therapeutic discussion.

Other approaches also use canines. Existential therapists encourage the client to re-create experiences where the canine plays a specific role. Reality therapists use canine-assisted interventions to help the client focus on the present while learning that mistakes made in the past are no longer relevant and that the importance of life is in the present. A solution-focused therapist can use a canine in practice to motivate the client to learn and apply new social and relationship skills with his or her canine and other people to achieve success in life.

In closing, canines and other animals can help therapists make improvements with some of their clients and people of various mental health disorders. It is important that mental health professionals stay informed on new ethical guidelines and laws pertaining to utilizing pets and trained animals in their practice because the field continues to change and evolve. Finally, it is also important for mental health professionals to stay within their training, experience and education.



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