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Amy Johnson Nov 24, 2009

A story from the frontline: how a dog can improve therapeutic intervention

Sandy Urkovich is a counselor in Sanibel Island, Florida and a recent graduate of an online animal assisted therapy certificate program. With her clients, Sandy uses her own dogs who have helped not only ameliorate relationships, but often provide a temporary deflection of feelings of pain, or offer a shoulder to cry on. Here is what Sandy has to say about her dog Duke: “Duke came into my life when he was two years old…after being 'forgotten' once the children of his human family were born in his former home in Chicago. I flew him to Florida in 2002 and he has been a very relevant part of our family ever since.

Initially quite shy and traumatized by the flight, he did not have an appetite for a few days so I had to hand feed him to sustain him. It took nearly a month for him to warm up to his brothers, Murphy and Riley. His phobic behaviors included a fear of tile floors and swimming in the pool, which made me wonder what happened to him. It turned out he had fallen down a flight of stairs when he was a puppy and was thrown into a swimming pool. Duke loved to sleep in our bed, curling up between my husband and I and our other Chocolate lab, Riley.

I immediately began taking Duke to my very small, closet sized office with me. He greeted people instantly at the door since the small space didn’t provide him room to go anywhere else. His size was intimidating for some, but after being lovingly kissed by this gentle giant, they would soon relax. Duke was apprehensive around big men and often stood back, until one day a new client came to the office, visibly troubled. He was tall and muscular and could have easily taken Hulk Hogan in a wrestling match! The man sat down and Duke cautiously walked over to my side and sat next to me.

As the man began explaining his situation, he suddenly burst into tears, put his head down and put his hands over his face, and sobbed. The room was quiet, except for his muffled sobs. Duke watched the man intently and very slowly walked over to him…with deep concentration. Duke then put his nose under one arm and started nudging the man to pick up his head. It took just a few moments for my client to figure out what was going on, but when he raised his head and Duke’s tongue reached out and kissed his wet, tear stained face, the man smiled. He put his arms around Duke’s neck and moved to sit next to Duke on the floor where they sat in silence for the next five minutes.

As I watched this scene unfold, I was near tears myself. This dog who had built in fears of large men was sitting next to a pained individual who was leaning on Duke for support. After about fifteen minutes, the man got up and sat on the sofa, but left his hand on Duke’s head. Duke did not move. Jokingly the man said he owed Duke a couple pounds of dog biscuits for letting him hold onto him. I replied that Duke gave him what we humans wish we could give – that high level of unconditional love and understanding.

Sometimes, long moments of silence can seem awkward for therapists or clients, but to allow a client the time to just cuddle with a dog…where there is no pressure or feelings of obligation to speak….it can allow the client the time needed to process or just sit for a moment and experience his emotions. He can just "be." At this moment, he is not sitting alone, potentially uncomfortable with the therapist waiting to determine when to speak or who will be the first to speak. The bond that is formed here between the dog and the client just cannot be done at the same level between therapist and client, but it can open the client up to the therapist for the healing process to begin.

After that incident, I knew that Duke was a therapy dog, without degrees, he earned the role of my assistant. He has never missed a day coming to the office. Small children lay on him; adults let him lie on their feet. Everyone that comes in will say hi to Duke before addressing me. Duke has shown everyone who enters my office the love that so many times one may never experience in life. He understands when someone doesn’t want him near, but eventually will work his way into their hearts. Duke allows children to walk him along with me and our new therapy dog, Troy. Troy is learning the ropes and he copies whatever Duke does. He greets people at the door, and escorts them to the session room. He then lies down and waits for us to be finished and will walk the client back to the front reception room. I could not imagine my practice without them."

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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