Many months ago a badly abused, malnourished abandoned puppy wondered into an autobody repair business. She was dirty, starving and had large open and infected wounds on her face. Some of the wounds could have been cigarette burns, some could have been the result of her being fed to fight dogs, a barbaric tradition of those who make money from torturing, maiming and killing dogs for “sport,” others were from causes unknown. She was dirty, confused, neglected and scared. She had little trust and would growl and bark if you approached her. Her eyes were filled with sadness but also despite her treatment, they were filled with love. They discovered that she was deaf, there is no way to know if this was the excuse that her previous owners used to excuse their treatment of her or not.
Workers took her in and though they gave her her distance, they fed her and reached out to a local rescue worker who specializes in bull type dogs. They likely did so as they knew that she had a “no kill” policy unlike the local pound. Having a deaf, sick dog go to a regular pound that holds dog for only a short period of time and lacks proper access to health care would have been tantamount to giving her a death sentence. Instead they dug into their pockets and contributed toward her vet bills. Strangers a short time ago, now friends of this poor pup; though they could not keep her they wanted her safe.
The rescue worker came and calmed her. In a matter of minutes this scared pup was on her back and waiting for a tummy rub. Though sick, she was loving and lovable. She brought her to the vet where the wounds on her face were treated; her emotional scars would likely take much longer to treat. From there she was blessed to get some of the best training available. She learned to get along being deaf, to trust people and how to have proper boundaries. Her rescue worker named her Helen after Helen Keller and it suits her personality very well.
Recently we were looking for a new cat for our office; after 16 or so years our dear cat Ophelia passed away and clients were mourning her loss and the companionship she provided during sessions. As we were waiting to view the cats in the rescue shelter I noticed this white American Bulldog and could not help but feel drawn towards her. I waived to her through the window and she seemed to smile. I pointed her out to my wife who made it clear that the office was in no need for a dog. Soon we picked out Misch and started the adoption process; she would be the new office cat. The following week when we went to pick up Misch, I asked more about Helen, learned she was deaf and made excuses to look at her and play with her some before heading home. As days went by I found myself talking more and more to people about that amazing dog.
A few weeks later I emailed and asked if they thought Helen would be suitable to be around a cat, an office environment, a therapeutic farm etc. and was told that they felt she would be perfect. They felt that this environment could be a fairy tale story for a pup who had been through so much but still had so much more love to give. Soon three of the office staff (my wife included) went to visit with Helen at the foundation. The visit was amazing but I requested that Helen be allowed to visit the office and spend time there to make sure she would be happy with us and her potential new home. She after all was adopting us as much as we were adopting her.
In the few weeks that we have had Helen, she has tried to make friends with Misch unsuccessfully but she has been part of several successful sessions. She seems to know who needs her the most, no matter if it is an individual, couple or family session; she will spend the most time with those who are the saddest. At times I am not sure who has had the greatest impact in the session, the doctor or the animal. The clients agree that she has made a real impact on them.
Helen is not an abused dog that we adopted; she is a dog that we adopted who happened to have been abused when she was a pup. She is no longer a victim of abuse but instead she is the survivor of abuse. She is Helen and she reminds us all that we can survive hellish times and come out of it intact. Sure, she could be mean, she could attack and not trust anyone but instead she chooses to greet people with love (though some fear remains). Other than the physical scars that remain on the left side of her face and neck and the occasional nightmare, Helen appears to be just like any other dog.
There are two main points to this blog. The first is that animals can be very beneficial both in and out of the treatment session. The 2nd is that we do not need to be defined by the abuse that we have survived; we can thrive, rebuild and go beyond being a victim. The first stage tends to be to no longer define yourself as a victim and instead identify yourself as a survivor.
How many of our clients are currently carrying physical and emotional scars from abuse? What are you doing as their clinician to help them see themselves as more than a victim? How are you helping them see themselves for the worthy person that they are? Are you helping them redefine themselves as needed or are you focusing session after session on what makes them “less” than they once were?
Permanent adjustments may need to be made after abuse or illness. Helen will never hear so we have had to learn how to communicate with her without words. We have adjusted to making sure we have eye contact with her when trying to communicate and in learning certain hand gestures. We plan on taking part in training classes with her so we can learn to communicate with her better. She is one of the family.
When we work with abused clients we must remember to hear them, to listen, support and help them to rebuild. Self esteem is often damaged as is self image and self worth. Helping them see that they have not lost value, that they are not tainted is crucial. In time they can see themselves for what they are, good people. Period. There is no need to define themselves with abuse or the past; they are who they are and they are just as worthy as the rest of us.
As Helen continues to teach us, as we continue to teach her, we all are learning. So too are our clients, and so too are we as clinicians. The truly educated never graduate.
(If you would like to see a picture of Helen, you can find her under the “photo” section of our farm page)
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor and the clinical & executive director of a community counseling agency in central CT (www.docwarren.org).