Moments of Magic
Animal-Assisted Interventions in a Psychotherapy Setting
written by: Ruth Shell, MA RCC, 1999
Vancouver, BC Canada
A psychotherapist in private practice discovers the powerful benefits of the human-animal bond while employing Lucy, her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in therapeutic interactions with clients. Case examples are offered illustrating a variety of Animal-Assisted Therapy interventions. The collaborative skills of both therapist and canine create dynamic and sometimes magical moments in therapy.
The Human-Animal Bond
The highly cherished bond between humans and their companion animals has endured throughout history. It is a bond that dissolves barriers of culture, age, and ability, reducing us all to the simple, yet magnetic pull of unconditional acceptance and love. This complete acceptance and purity of love is what our animals provide us. It follows that we would invite these beloved companions into acts of support or healing.
In particular, there is something special about our attachment to dogs. Known as man’s best friend, this animal in all its varieties is highly attractive to us. Anyone who has a dog will tell you how often people are drawn to it when they are out for a walk. Apart from being a beautiful creature, a dog has the uncanny ability to draw our focus and calm us. Ever curious and offering unconditional acceptance they are able to capture our attention and bring us into the moment. This describes the unique power behind the therapy dog’s ability to bring disoriented patients into the present, assist the withdrawn to vocalize, and help a child with attention difficulties to focus.
The research on Animal-Assisted Therapy primarily focuses on applications with the elderly, disabled, and severely disturbed children. The settings documented are generally hospitals and other residential care facilities where dogs or other animals visit with their volunteer handlers, or various professionals incorporate them into physical, occupational, or recreational therapy modalities. Surprisingly, little is written on dogs in an outpatient counselling setting.
Perhaps the dramatic demonstrations achieving therapeutic goals with the help of therapy dogs are obvious when an autistic child stops a repetitive pattern and softly pats a Golden Retriever, or when a non-verbal Alzheimer’s patient is found happily conversing with a little Poodle on her lap. It is more difficult to measure the internal emotional benefits that might be occurring when a dog is present during a counselling discourse. “Therapy dogs often help people without anyone knowing exactly how”…they “provide people with emotional benefits through the use of the dogs’ social instincts and social skills” (Diamond Davis, 1992, p. 1).
A dog that comes to work with no official role, seems to produce gentle emotional benefits that people notice but rarely report. It is known that Freud was very fond of his Chow Chows. They accompanied him to his office regularly, yet none of his writing reflects their active involvement as co-therapists. How many others have included dogs in therapy, quietly knowing their value, without acknowledging or conducting research to support their benefit?
Animal-Assisted Interventions in a Psychotherapy Practice
As a Family Systems Therapist in private practice for twenty years, I work with my dog Lucy, a very special therapy dog who joined me in practice four years ago. A commonly asked question is “What does she actually do?” Dr. Jan Loney asserts, “Not only is the pet safe and attractive, it has the capacity to modify the identity of the environment and other people in the environment. The therapist who comes with the pet becomes less dangerous, and the patient can reveal more of himself” (Beck & Katcher, 1996, p. 128).
From the moment Lucy joined my counselling practice, her presence alone created a shift in the therapeutic environment. One client described Lucy’s presence as having “a warming effect”. This means the environment has changed for her. It has become warmer. If comfort, warmth, and a listening ear are what we seek in therapy then at least for this client, Lucy modifies the environment in a helpful way.
Another client reported enjoying the chaos that Lucy brings to my office. “I like how all of her stuff is lying around on the floor, and her food dishes are over there. It makes me feel like there is more going on here than just my problems.” This comment is a clear message that clients might want a distraction from the intense focus on their issues. With an animal in the room the client has more control of moving in and out of the discourse about themselves and their problems. The opportunity to triangulate with the dog when conversation with the therapist becomes too intense offers the client more power in the therapeutic process. This phenomenon allows the therapist to link a systemic understanding of triangulation with the collaborative desire to situate ownership of the therapy with the client.
Still other clients, report pleasure in watching their therapist, active in a loving relationship. The team effort of dog and therapist offers humor, spontaneity, consistency and respect. These elements change the work by adding dimension to the experience for both client and therapist. The client has broader choices for forming attachment and for reflecting on their issues, while the therapist has more opportunities for unique interventions.
In addition to creating an inviting therapeutic environment, animal-assisted interventions are used in my practice with Lucy in two ways. The first is simply allowing her magnetic power to be enjoyed and taken up by the client, while the second is the incorporation of the dog as a metaphor in the therapeutic discourse. The following case examples illustrate a variety of interventions where by using this combination of magnet and metaphor, we create magic.
Lucy as Comfort Spaniel
During a rather intense session with Malcolm, Lucy was busy on the other side of the office away from the couch or my chair. Malcolm kept looking over to Lucy while he explored family of origin stories and processed a particularly sad experience. Was he distracted or were his glances acting as a way of moving in and out of his intense feeling experience? I merely observed, knowing that either the client or the dog will eventually move the process forward.
One of Malcolm’s glances caught Lucy’s eye. She immediately stood up, and carrying a ‘chewy’ in her mouth went over to the couch, signaling to the client to lift her up to join him. Malcolm immediately complied, saying, “I was wondering when you were going to come over here!” Lucy settled in his lap and without anything further Malcolm returned to his work obviously comforted by the physical closeness of the dog.
Lucy’s Effortless Empathy
Judy, a 26 year old young woman sat at one end of the couch while Lucy napped on her blanket at the other end, seemingly oblivious of the building emotion in the therapeutic conversation. About half way through the session Judy encountered an internal reflection that evoked tears. The room was still for a moment and then without prompt, Lucy awoke and moved to take a new position on the client’s lap. She quickly made herself comfortable, closed her eyes and resumed napping. Instantly, Judy began petting the dog, and with a smile joining her tears looked up at me and remarked, “Did you see that?” I nodded and asked if it was ok for Lucy to join her in her pain. She remarked, “Oh yes, I love it!” and we resumed our work.
Lucy as Bonding Agent
My first real feedback that Lucy and I were identified as working together toward a client’s goals came when I returned after a summer vacation. Susan, a 34-year old woman suffering anxiety, and Lucy greeted each other enthusiastically. I stood nearby nearly ignored. When the two of them finally settled on the couch together Susan said, “I don’t know who I missed more – you or Lucy!”
This comment led Susan to express her special attachment with the dog and how she finds Lucy a benefit to her work in therapy. She spoke about how she gets so wound and holding and stroking Lucy in her lap helps settle her nerves. “Lucy’s energy grounds me, and then I can talk about what I need to talk about with you. You guys are a great team.” The enthusiastic and physical affection shared with the dog allowed this client to form a deep bond with the therapist team and the process of therapy itself.
In another example, Sylvia sat quietly on the couch stroking Lucy throughout her session. She is soft spoken and struggles as a young woman to find her identity. Today she remarked after a long silence, “You know, I just noticed something interesting…when I look down at Lucy on my lap, I seem to be able to focus on my thoughts. And then when I look up, everything seems blurry again.”
I thanked Sylvia for sharing her insight and suggested that she continue to utilize Lucy as a focal point for her thoughts whenever she felt the need. I let her know that looking at me was not necessary for us to continue a useful dialogue. Some therapeutic interventions are more effective when offered by Lucy rather than me.
Lucy as Diagnostician
John, a middle aged male client, often has trouble settling into our sessions. Becoming present within himself seems to be a difficult task. Lucy was a teething puppy in training when she first met John. He fussed with the dog on his lap, teasing her with his fingers, encouraging her to nibble on him then pulling away.
I explained to John that I was teaching Lucy ‘no teeth on human skin’, and to this end, offered him a chew toy to hold as an alternate object for Lucy’s oral focus. Most clients easily accept this instruction and help in my training efforts by distracting the dog away from their hands. In this case, John accepted the toy but did not use it. He continued to tease Lucy with his hands and I watched both client and animal get increasingly agitated.
I gently asked again if John could resist the temptation to allow Lucy’s hand nibbling. He reprimanded the dog by saying “No!” but continued to offer his hands teasingly. This behaviour appeared innocent and unconscious. It occurred to me that I was witnessing the representation of John’s presenting problem: the difficulty he has as a single parent setting boundaries with his children.
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Lucy as a Safe Rehearsal Subject
I removed my collaborating diagnostician from John’s lap and focussed my questions to help him reflect on his interaction with Lucy. Was John feeling frustrated with Lucy? Was he aware of his ineffectual struggle to control Lucy’s teething? How was this experience similar to his difficulties inviting desirable behaviour from his children? What must he attend to that might offer a different result? An important conversation about setting boundaries and maintaining consistency unfolded.
In subsequent sessions John rehearsed new skills using Lucy as a safe subject for his efforts, and then making trials at offering consistent boundaries at home. He made steady progress with Lucy and reported slower but progressive results with his kids.
Lucy as Dream Interpreter
Julia is a 40-year-old woman who has had a long-standing relationship with me in therapy. We have addressed a variety of issues including the painful and dramatic separation from her drug-abusing first husband a number of years ago.
In one recent session, Julia was reflecting on a recent dream about her ex-husband that was haunting her. She was providing details of how she allows herself to get worked up with worry. Unexpectedly, Lucy interrupted us with vigorous ear scratching accompanied by a high pitched scream. Surprised at Lucy’s sudden animation from a deep sleep, Julia and I just watched her for a moment. Then, with a little giggle, Julia said, “OK Lucy, I get it – I should just shake that man right out of my head!” We both laughed aloud, and Lucy just looked at us, wondering what the joke was. Moments later she was sound asleep, oblivious to the impact of her precisely timed, and quite helpful, ‘clinical intervention’.
Lucy as Role Model
Elizabeth, who has developed a strong attachment to Lucy, was holding and stroking the dog most of our session one day as she shared details of painful exclusion experiences. We discussed experiences from her memory as a child in her family group, as well as recent hurtful events involving her parents and her boyfriend. The recurring complaint was “Why don’t they invite me? What do I have to do to get their attention?”
Elizabeth’s question instantly made me think of Lucy and her easy way of being included wherever she goes. It occurred to me that when I observe Lucy’s interactions with others she always counts herself in. She just assumes that she has been invited, whether it is total strangers encountered on a walk or another dog at the park. She takes her eager and open spirit and just ‘counts herself in’. When I shared this insight about Lucy, there was a visceral change in my client. Elizabeth began to move to a deeper understanding of herself in the context of this issue remarking on the significance of her own responsibility for inclusion.
In a follow-up session, Elizabeth reported what a profound impact using Lucy as an example had been for her. She added, “I always think of Lucy now when I feel left out – she is an inspiration and a reminder to me to act on my own behalf.”
Lucy as Developmental Mirror
I had been working with Katie for several years before Lucy joined my practice as a therapy puppy in training. During this period of therapy she has grown from a shy, isolated woman who believed the verbal abuse she suffered in her marriage, to a self-initiating and somewhat fearless woman with growing self-esteem.
As we began a session, Katie remarked on how Lucy had grown recently and inquired how she was doing. Somewhat exasperated with Lucy’s developing assertiveness I remarked, “Well she seems to have found her voice in the past couple of weeks!” Katie laughed aloud saying, “Good work Lucy – some of us have taken a lot longer!”
Katie’s quick wit and easy way of using Lucy as a developmental measuring stick delighted me. On a challenging day with no effort at all on my part, the subtle impact of the dog’s presence was noted.
Lucy Works the Waiting Room
During the summer, when I had a lightly booked day, I seized the opportunity to do some filing. I had the office door open to the waiting area but Lucy seemed content to sit at my feet. When the lobby began to develop activity with clients waiting to see other therapists, Lucy decided to go to work anyway. Before I knew it she was making friends lightening the atmosphere in the waiting room. She even tried to get in on a session across the hall when my neighbour a psychiatrist opened her door to greet her next patient. Lucy seemed most surprised when I retrieved her from the Doctor’s couch and we all had a good chuckle.
Lucy’s Impact is Far-Reaching
Not long ago, Lucy made a friend and a therapeutic intervention without me even knowing about it! One of the clients of another therapist had weekly contact with Lucy in the waiting room and missed her terribly after we moved. She wrote a letter to help me understand how Lucy had touched her life and changed her therapy experience.
“Although I am not Ruth Shell’s patient, I benefited so much from the brief moments I spent with Lucy in the waiting room. Her exuberance and delight in seeing me always buoyed my spirits, as I waited to see my own therapist. After greeting me on one occasion, she followed Ruth into her office, but then returned and buried her head in my skirt. Somehow, she knew how sad I felt that day, and I was so grateful for her comforting act.
I am most anxious at the beginning of a therapy session, but I found I could relax by talking about Lucy. It is very difficult for me to talk about deep emotional feelings, but through Lucy, I began to feel comfortable doing this. Lucy’s most endearing charm is her ability to make you feel special, and that was a great source of comfort and encouragement as I tried to face the painful aspects of my past. Initially, I couldn’t understand why Lucy would want to see me, but over time, I realized that she gives her love unconditionally and unselfishly. What a beautiful way to learn to trust and to acknowledge my own self worth!”
A Therapist and her Practice are changed
The warmth and tender snuggles Lucy insists on giving me at home act as a constant reminder of the powerful influence she has had on the lives of my clients at the office. She is very nearly irresistible! Friends, associates, and clients who initially expressed disinterest or even apprehension, later remarked that they too have felt captured by Lucy’s remarkable spell. Is it that Lucy is a natural therapy dog anxious to work with people or could the innocent mirror and metaphor her canine qualities bring to the therapy be irresistibly accessible?
It is noteworthy to mention that since Lucy has joined my practice, three of my clients have decided to acquire a pet dog or cat, and one other is planning to purchase a puppy next spring. Still another, who has “never been much for dogs” finds herself looking forward to seeing Lucy every week and thinks she might give in to her fiancée’s desire to get a dog before they start a family. These individuals tease me that “it’s Lucy’s fault” but we all know they are grateful for her role in their therapy.
At first, utilizing Lucy in the therapy room produced anxiety in me. Why would people want to pay me to talk about, or play with my dog? To understand the potential power this gave them in the timing and control of addressing their problems has required a leap of faith on my part. I have had to learn once again as a therapist to trust the process. And in this case to trust Lucy! Co-therapy is an interesting dance within the self and with another. Working with an animal partner who is unfamiliar with theory adds a dimension that reduces the intellectual, and invites spontaneity. With my clients, I certainly witness a rather magical quality of communication that occurs because of Lucy, and that promotes growth and health in all of us.
“From earliest history man and dog have formed a non-threatening, constructive bond of emotion and communication. In what now seems an almost magnetic attraction, these two seekers for survival found a relationship that even today can cut through the artificiality of technological stresses” (The Monks of New Skete, 1978, p. xi).
Lucy has been a blessing in my life. I am struck by the transformational impact she has brought my work and my clients. It has invited me into the world of unexplainable phenomenon and has left me to consider my privileged work as a therapist with a deeper sense of wonder.
Beck, A. & Katcher, A. (1996). Between pets and people (Rev. ed.). West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
Diamond Davis, K. (1992). Therapy dogs: training your dog to reach others. Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada.
The Monks of New Skete. (1978). How to be your dog’s best friend. New York: Little, Brown and Company.