When I’m stressed and feel like I need an outlet, I reach for Bright. Hey, Bryan can only take so much. Her non-judging but still animate presence is comforting, so I brush her or stroke her little muzzle and soft ears and let my worries melt away. Apparently, I’m not alone; more and more practitioners in the helping field are using dogs to help their patients feel at ease and open up during sessions.
Nancie Spector is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and has been practicing privately for nearly 30 years; in her home office, she facilitates psychological testing and therapy sessions for children and adults, many of whom are on the autism spectrum. For her first 15 years or so, she had sort of incidental therapy pets – her cats. During sessions, if they deemed fit, they’d would allow patients to pet and hold them. Nancie noticed that it seemed to relax some of her patients, but unfortunately, cats can be fickle. Since many of the people Nancie works with are children, she found the cats’ inconsistencies to be problematic; one week, a child could pet the cat and chatter away, and the next week the cat would want nothing to do with it and the child would be fixated on the cat. Nancie sought advice from her vet and was told that a golden retriever might be a good choice if she wanted a real, dedicated therapy pet. In 2000, Nancie began training Iris, who became her first official employee in the office.
When Iris passed away suddenly in 2006, Nancie started researching organizations that trained and provided highly skilled dogs for this kind of use, and she selected CCI. In 2008, Nancie was called to Team Training in Medford, NY, where she met her new partner, Rand. Team Training really stretched her, but it was worth the challenge to have such a great match.
Rand is a beautiful dog, a “fur blanket,” and happy to hang out in therapy sessions, just as Nancie told CCI she needed. As a Facility Dog, his role is different than that of a Service Dog; Rand spends his days with Nancie in the office interacting with patients, and only goes in public if he’s accompanied by Nancie and a patient. A typical day for Rand starts with a one-hour walk in the neighborhood with Nancie and his four-legged roommates. Four days a week, he has four sessions before lunch, a nice two-hour break, complete with playtime outside, and then up to six sessions in the afternoon. If there’s a patient that can’t be near him because of allergies or fear, he hangs out in his crate.
Having Rand in the office has been invaluable to Nancie’s practice. In therapy, patients often need to discuss things that cause them stress, and Rand’s non-threatening company can help them feel secure enough to get the words out. Some choose to sit in their chairs and pet him, some take him for walks, and others get right on the floor to give him their full attention, brush in hand; he’s a great reward for children who have to take tests and need some motivation.
According to Nancie, Rand is as loving as her first dog, Iris, “…but better trained.” He can walk calmly on outings with patients, stay in the down position for whole sessions, and even lick on command. One of her patients has some sensory issues, and Rand’s continuous licking helps her to feel calm and relaxed. All she has to do is say the word. Nancie has also been able to treat may children for dog phobias, which is much easier to do with a dog that doesn’t jump, or even approach without permission.
Nancie recalled a wonderful example of a time when Rand allowed a patient to open up in a way she couldn’t have otherwise: “I had one adolescent patient who had been traumatized tell me that she couldn’t look at me or tell me what had happened, but she could sit on the floor and tell Rand, and I could listen.” Can you imagine missing an opportunity like that because the animal can’t behave appropriately? Thank goodness for well-trained, tolerant, sweet CCI dogs.
Nancie’s advice to other practitioners considering adding a dog to the office? Have a plan. Decide how you’ll use the dog. For rewards? Comfort? Who are your patients? Do you treat many people with severe allergies? What will you do with the dog in the case that a patient can’t be near it? Most importantly, do you have time and resources to care for the dog outside of work? A working dog is still a dog, and needs exercise, social time, grooming, and medical attention.
Regardless of your occupation or dog status, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this:
I’m always looking for teams to write about. Email me at helponfourlegs (@) gmail (.) com if you’re interested.