We had Brucie for 11 years, he was healthy American Bulldog until the moment he died while playing; the vet said it was his heart. We had hoped to make him a therapy dog but he was about as calm as Marmaduke and weighed in at 75-80 pounds, a combination that clients just could not deal with so he stayed our pup upstairs in our home and only ventured into the office at night and on weekends. He was so calm when others were not around but once a stranger came they would be tackled and licked until they were totally coated.
We had Ophie (short for Ophelia) for 17 years, 7 of those she was our office mascot. She did not take to the job immediately and instead ran out of the office as the first client arrived, returned for lunch break and then ran off again until the end of the day. One day a client noticed her outside and picked her up ignoring her meows of complaint and brought her into the office where she petted her throughout the session. Soon Ophie was a true mascot who greeted clients at the door or followed them into the office from the parking area. She was not shy in the least as many clients can attest. She had a way of head butting people who were not petting her enough and when she had had her fill she would walk to the office door sit down and look at the client or over to me and meow announcing that it was her time to move on.
Many a client held her and petted her over the years. Some were happy; others in tears but all got so much joy from her. Even several former “cat haters” grew to look for her ad to spend time whenever they could. Sadly she recently left us; several clients were devastated which encouraged us to get another office mascot. Misch (pronounced Meesh) joined our home a few weeks ago and joined my office earlier this week. Unlike Ophie, Misch is an indoor only kitty who was a rescue and about a year old. Like Ophie she is not sure what to think about all these people but she is warming to them one pet at a time.
We all know of the value of animals when it comes to autistic clients but not so many folks realize the value of animals in therapy for most every client (excuse those allergic or overly afraid or uninterested). I have seen some very “tough and mean looking” client’s faces light up when the kitty sat on their lap or otherwise got their attention. Sometimes too a client will pet the animal and “talk to them” about things they are not yet comfortable to tell another human.
Recently I had a young client break down when recounting a traumatic event. They did the best they could until they had said all they had left and were ready to say. Misch, not yet as handy as Ophie, missed her cue to jump up into the client’s lap but that did not matter. Within a few seconds the client was on the floor and playing slowly with her, collecting themselves and talking to her about how they were. It was sad but very healing for them. That moment alone was worth the cost of the cat, at least to us. Thankfully she has many years of service left.
I had a client who I could not seem to reach- very into themselves, a tough cookie to crack as a dear friend would say. They did not appear to care about anyone or anything, that is except the office mascot. Soon they were bringing it treats and showing it love. Recently they went to the same rescue shelter as we did and got a FEW pets of their own; so much growth from a combination of traditional therapy and that of pet therapy.
Clients can learn so much from these animals. They can learn about unconditional love and understanding, about responsibility, about behavior; they may even find themselves feeling a sense of belonging for perhaps the first time.
Up at the farm there are many wild animals that roam the area. There are also some turkeys, rabbits and Kahlani the farm dog. So many folks enjoy time with the animals; a few I believe only come to the farm for the animal times that can be had there.
Whether a private practice or a part of a large program I would encourage you to explore the possibilities of incorporating an animal into your therapeutic tool box. The love you share may well spread.
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org).