Over 12 years ago I adopted a Cairn terrier from a shelter. I named him Ozzie. One of the reasons I got Ozzie is because I wanted to train him to be a therapy dog in my private practice. Most therapy dogs and animals are used in settings such as nursing homes, schools and hospitals. I thought using a dog in a private practice consisting of children, adolescents and adults may help welcome them, put them at ease, and help them with their problems.
How does pet therapy help?
Many studies have shown that pet ownership has a positive impact on one’s physical and emotional health. Pets provide unconditional love and acceptance. When coming to therapy, patients often come with a myriad of emotions and problems. They may be struggling with issues of self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-acceptance.
There is great power in the human/animal bond. Studies have demonstrated that when around animals, depressed people become more outgoing; children with ADHD and behavior disorders become less aggressive; and children with developmental delays or are on the autistic spectrum, become more social and their concentration improves.
From a physical health perspective, the National Institute of Health found that married couples that owned a pet had significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure levels during psychological and physical stress tests and recovered faster. Scientific studies showed that petting a dog increases the level of pleasure hormones and lowers the stress hormone cortisol. Who doesn’t smile when you see a dog wagging its tail at you?
Having a dog in my practice allows me the opportunity to teach things in a different way and use the dog as another therapeutic tool. For example, some parents and kids asked why Ozzie has to stay in his bed and not wander around the room. This gives me the opportunity to discuss boundary issues and setting limits.
Sometimes couples argue in my office and Ozzie would react by shivering, whimpering and even barking. I will say to patients, “Look at the effect you are having on the dog. How do you think your children react when you start yelling like this at home?”
With Ozzie’s help, children with boundary issues learn social skills such as personal space and by following rules when it comes to petting Ozzie. They are taught where and how to pet him that is respectful to him. Children who are aggressive learn that their rough behavior with Ozzie is unacceptable and lose the privilege of being around him. This leads to discussions of bullying and taunting.
Patients who need to work on being more assertive get to first practice giving commands to Ozzie. As they gain confidence, they begin to practice with people in their lives.
For children who have difficulty naming and talking about emotions, I say to them, “Look at Ozzie’s tail. What do you think he’s feeling? How is your tail today? What would your tail be doing if you had one? Would it be wagging or between your legs (i.e., anxious, scared).
Sometimes my patients are reticent to talking about difficult topics or feelings in my office. I have often witnessed them talking to Ozzie about their problems or I have used Ozzie to talk to in order to get my patients to open up. I might say, “Nicholas looks sad today Ozzie, maybe he can talk to us about his feelings?” Sometimes when I talk to Ozzie, my child patients will laugh and therefore break the ice and allowing them to open up in therapy.
My adult patients love him too. When he takes a day off, they always ask, “Where is Ozzie?” Whether people open up to Ozzie or me, it doesn’t matter. The point is they are talking and feeling comfortable in the therapeutic room.
We all want to help our patients grow and change their dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors. What happens when your therapy dog changes?
Two years ago, Ozzie was diagnosed with bladder cancer. In the beginning, Ozzie had few symptoms and received chemotherapy and other treatments. Over time, Ozzie could not control his bladder, was having accidents and was tired from the treatments. It was an ethical and moral decision to retire Ozzie from the practice at this time.
I explained to my patients that Ozzie was going to retire from therapy and relax at home. This afforded my patients to talk about transitions, good-byes and other changes in their lives. This was also hard on me given that I am in solo practice. He was therapeutic for me, too!!
In 2013, Ozzie passed away after his yearlong battle with bladder cancer.
After some healing, I have decided to get another dog for our home and my practice. He is a Cairn terrier named Cooper. I like Cairn terriers because they are smart, attentive, trainable and hypoallergenic. I will begin training him through a professional school that will eventually certify him as a therapy dog.
We will have to wait some time before he’s ready to work with patients. Training and certification is a must. You cannot just bring your pet to do therapeutic work. Check into pet therapy resources online and get the proper training and certification.
I am excited about this new chapter in my personal and professional life. I am “panting” in anticipation of using Cooper with my patients! ###
Dr. Frank Sileo, founder and Executive Director of The Center for Psychological Enhancement, LLC, in Ridgewood, New Jersey, is a licensed psychologist specializing in work with children and adolescents. He has written five books for children on topics including lactose intolerance, Crohn’s Disease, winning and losing, homesickness and self-confidence. His most recent book is entitled, Don’t Put Yourself Down in Circus Town: A Story About Self-Confidence. [Dr. Sileo’s website]