By, Bunny Summer Young, M.A., QMHP
Students in school settings have been known to come to the counselors office to pet or visit with the dog but end up staying to speak to the counselor once their anxiety is calmed by their interaction with the dog. This creates opportunities for counselors to have more frequent conversations and check-ins with students that they would otherwise not have without the attraction of the canine. Students also find themselves having a conversation with the dog about difficult topics and situations in their lives while the therapist listens in the background (rather than the sometimes uncomfortable task of the student discussing life with another adult). This redirected conversation enables counselors to pose questions while the students concentrate on the dog. Often, the students will feel less intimidated or nervous during that time.
Another positive side effect of clients interacting with a dog is that it creates an opportunity to discuss how a client feels while petting the animal. This will create an opening for the therapist to discuss that feeling surrounding other areas of the client’s life. The interaction creates an organic moment of emotion. This practice can then initiate the process of emotion sharing with the therapist and begin a healing opportunity while continuing to be supported by the animal. Having the dog as a part of the session provides modeling of emotion as well. Dogs can react to a client’s state of emotion or body language and the therapist will point out the dog’s response and ask the client what their thoughts are (e.g. why is dog behaving that way?). If the dog is tired one day, the topic of lethargy or lack of motivation can be relevant to the client and their therapy for discussion. Discussing the dog’s organic behavior is a way to apply authentic moments that are relevant to a session without having to bring a therapist’s observations or feelings into the session. All conversation is centered on what the dog is experiencing but the client can apply those moments to their lives and therapy.
One area not commonly discussed is, how animal assisted therapy can benefit the canine and not just the client. Animal assisted therapy offers the client a chance to teach the dog something. Clients actually learn how to “speak dog” or communicate in a way that is meaningful to the dog, own the process, observe the outcomes, and adjust their actions based on those outcomes. This is a very succinct and direct way to create a consequence conversation and observation activity with the client. It can also be meaningful when a client teaches a dog how not to do something as the DON’Ts in the client’s lives are sometimes just as important as the DO’s. Ultimately, healthy positive communication between the dog and client, and the psychological and mental well being that follows, are the intended results when one “speaks dog.”