‘The walls come right down’: The clinical benefits of therapy dogs

By Scott Gleeson

February 2023

Donna Gluck and Talia (Photo courtesy of Donna Gluck)

Donna Gluck, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Downers Grove, Illinois, said her dog, Talia, is lucky to be alive after experiencing horrific trauma before being rescued. But canines’ past trauma can also transform into powerful gifts of intuition and healing when harnessed in the right way.

Talia , a 120-pound, black-furred Great Dane, now moonlights as a certified therapy dog at Gluck’s private practice, DG Counseling. Although Talia has a commanding presence in a counseling room, she also has a gentle spirit, which helps to calm clients.

“I’ve seen children who are completely shut down in therapy go on the floor, pet Talia, calm down and tell her many of their secrets,” Gluck recalls. “She has the ability to disarm and create a culture of safety and healing that we can’t come close to on our own as clinicians.”

Gluck is among a growing wave of therapists around the country who are using their own personal pets as co-therapists or personal assistants to complement their clinical work with clients. Many practices have also leaned into the trend by adopting a “mascot” therapy dog at their offices for clinicians to use as an official form of canine assisted therapy or simply to enhance the therapeutic ambiance for their clients.

“We’re seeing more and more of it in our field, and it’s not surprising,” says Gluck, an American Counseling Association member. “Research shows these animals can help to reduce stress, anxiety and depression on a chemical level, and I’ve found Talia's presence to lead to breakthroughs for my clients.”

There’s ample research highlighting the efficacy of trained service animals, particularly those who are bred to have a calming temperament. But rescue dogs, such as Gluck’s Great Dane, who go through proper channels of training can also play a meaningful role in helping clients take down emotional walls in session.

“Trauma knows trauma,” Gluck says. “One time Talia wandered off into the lobby at my practice, which she rarely does, and just went over and put her head in a woman’s lap. It turned out someone close to the woman had just recently died. She was hurting. Rescue dogs have a special intuition and way of comforting people.”

Elise Samet, the program manager at Canine Assisted Therapy in Oakland Park, Florida, says having the right temperament is essential for a therapy dog to be effective in a healing space, but a rescue animal’s traumatic past is not a deal breaker given what she’s seen in her line of work.

“We believe therapy dogs are not made; they are born,” Samet says. “We have both rescues and nonrescues who are therapy dogs in our network, and they’re equally equipped once they pass the training. I’ve seen the walls come right down for people because the nonjudgment and comfort the dogs provide changes people’s mood and helps them to not have to feel alone with what they’re going through.”

Integrating dogs into the therapeutic experience

John VanderKaay, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Center for Mighty Marriages and Families in Conroe, Texas, says his rescue dog Cocoa, who is a chocolate Lab mixed breed, nearly failed her dog therapy training because she’s a “social butterfly” and loves to interact with other dogs. This characteristic is a disqualifier for the screening of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national network that provides testing and certification for clinicians who seek to use their dogs in animal-assisted activities.

For the dog to become officially registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a tester or observer will first assess if the dog has a strong relationship with the owner and presents with a good-hearted nature. Then, the tester and observer assess the dog in various mental health facilities to see the animal in action. If a dog doesn’t pass, they can operate as more of a mascot for a private practice, but officially registered therapy dogs are recommended for clinical work with clients.

“They have you go through a two-day exam that consists of basic obedience and training,” VanderKaay explains. “There were a lot of people petting her and distracting her to make sure she wouldn’t get spooked. She was eating it up because she loves being around people.”

VanderKaay says he first got the idea to make Cocoa a therapy assistant after he saw how she interacted with his own family members when they’d begin to show emotion. If someone started crying while watching a movie, for example, Cocoa would intuitively pick up on the person’s sadness and go over to provide comfort with her paws.

“The same thing happens now in session,” VanderKaay says. “She’ll look at me to see if it’s all right, and then she’ll go put her head in a client’s lap or nestle right next to someone’s leg.” This act leads to a profound moment in session, he notes, because when Cocoa comforts the client, it lessens their tension and anxiety and their guard comes down.

“There’s a therapeutic alliance for clients with Cocoa just as there is with me. Sometimes, they’ll even talk to her instead of talking to me if there’s something they’re feeling shameful about,” he says. “I can see how Cocoa assists in helping clients get to deeper thoughts and feelings. Cocoa can be this mediator and emotional catalyst.”

Brian Mockenhaupt, a licensed mental health counselor associate at Willow Center for Healing in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says that his 4-year-old dachshund, Oskar, also feeds off interactions with people. He let Oskar join a few of his client sessions in 2022 on a trial basis, but now Oskar has become a regular member of the clinical team.

“Oskar’s become so intuitive in sessions,” says Mockenhaupt, an ACA member. “He gets energized from being around people. He’ll sit next to the client the entire time, then read me to see if my tone shifts in a conversation and sense when there are a couple minutes left in a session. It’s heartwarming for me because he’s my dog but also feels so integrative.”

“I’ve done a lot of reflecting and learning about what my presence means in the room. It’s definitely different, in a good way, when Oskar is with me and clients have agreed to have him in sessions,” Mockenhaupt continues. “His presence is often a great icebreaker and buffer for clients when we first meet, helping them become regulated.”

Mockenhaupt said he always broaches the idea of having Oskar in session with clients first and can keep him at home or in another room for clients if they’re uncomfortable with him in session. When clients do agree to have the dog join, Mockenhaupt finds that his own relationship with Oskar often serves as a facilitator to build rapport with clients. “In a lot of ways, Oskar is an extension of me. I can immediately develop rapport through the dog,” he explains. “They can say, ‘Well I don’t know this person, but clearly this animal trusts him,’ so I can start to build trust here.”

Building trust between the counselor and the dog doesn’t happen overnight, VanderKaay cautions. He sees the connection he developed with Cocoa as his personal pet a “critical” part of the partnership between therapist and therapy dog.

“She’s a living being, so having a therapy dog is not like another therapy tool,” VanderKaay stresses. “The relationship she and I have rubs off to the clients. She trusts me and I trust her. It’s synergetic in that way. But part of that is me being attuned to her. I know that she needs breaks too. We talk a lot about counselor self-care. Well, therapy dogs need that self-care too, so we can maintain that it remains fun for her interacting with clients.”

Fostering emotional safety and connection

Robin McCutcheon, the executive director of Samaritan Counseling Center of Southeast Texas in Port Arthur, Texas, says her practice made the decision to get a rescue therapy dog, Foster, after a series of tragedies struck her area — Hurricane Harvey, a tropical storm and a nearby chemical plant exploding — all which occurred right before or during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We used the pandemic as an opportunity to look at the betterment of our services long term and ask ourselves, ‘What can we do different,’” McCutcheon says. “We kept seeing therapy dogs out at events and how people responded to them.” So her team adopted Foster from a shelter and applied and got a grant that pays for all the dog’s therapeutic training, and now he’s the therapy dog for the whole office. A counselor doing play therapy with a child on the floor with a therapy dog sitting beside them

Because most of McCutcheon’s clients at her practice are children, they researched to find dogs that aren’t heavy barkers and ones that have good personalities for working with children before adopting Foster, who, she says, exudes a warmth that helps to bolster emotional safety from the moment the children and families enter the practice.

“Foster will greet clients at the door,” McCutcheon continues. “When the doorbell rings, he knows it’s time to go see clients. He’ll sniff at them and love on them. A lot of young clients are used to walking in the door and think[ing] it’s a doctor visit. Instead, Foster can disarm them and show them it’s time to [be relaxed and] hang out. So most clients walk in with a smile on their face before they even start a session.”

McCutcheon shares Foster with the 10 other therapists on staff at the practice. They take turns rotating him between clients, who enjoy working with Foster so much they often try to schedule their sessions around times the dog is available, she says.

Having a dog in the office also helps foster an emotional connection between the client, therapy dog and counselor. “Those of us who work with younger children spend a lot of time on the floor with sand tray therapy and play therapy, so Foster is usually sitting right next to us,” McCutcheon says. “It enhances the emotional connection when you have a pup-pup sitting next to you; the warmth that comes from petting him … can be similar to when humans hold hands.”

And for adolescent clients, the dog can provide an unconditional judgment-free space, which can help offset negative experiences they may be having outside of counseling, she adds. A counselor guides a young girl to give a therapy dog the paw command. The dog is giving the child his paw.

Children who have experienced trauma will often repress and suppress their emotions, Gluck notes. But she says that having her dog, Talia, in the room has helped penetrate those walls that go up for children and otherwise wouldn’t come down right away.

“I’ve seen shy clients who will give Talia a command, have her raise a paw, and then they’ll stand up taller with a higher sense of self-esteem,” Gluck says. “When we have trauma, that stress raises the cortisone level in our body. Children so often are not able to process what’s happened or is happening to them because they’re in a state of shock and those emotions get stuck when their hippocampus stops working. The chemical reaction of seeing a loving dog in the room can help the breathing rate and blood pressure go down.”

Breaking down barriers

Gluck, who is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and specializes in trauma therapy, says one area where dog therapy is particularly beneficial is with clients diagnosed with posttraumatic stress, especially with male clients.

“It’s easier to show a softer side for a lot of men with a dog,” Gluck explains. “In our society, it’s not always accepted for men to lower their walls. The petting and comforting of Talia can be very calming. Maybe they only lower the walls a small amount and then put their armor back up. But Talia helps teach them it’s safe to do that.”

VanderKaay echoes these sentiments. “Having a dog in the room helps guys open up in ways they couldn’t otherwise — to go against the cultural norm of guys who are taught it’s not tough if you open up,” he says. “With me being a man and a retired military chaplain, I often can’t tell whether it’s my presence or Cocoa’s, but I can see that male clients may have picked me because I’m a male therapist and then Cocoa will be there and they feel like they can break down talking about stuff.”

Gluck has also noticed that having Talia in session brings out adult clients’ inner child when connecting with her dog after previous intervention methods proved unsuccessful. For instance, she’s seen clients pet Talia or give her a treat before tapping into vulnerable emotions that weren’t otherwise accessible.

“Growing up, especially for a child, if there’s dysfunction in the home, a dog can be their whole world,” Gluck says. “For myself, I was raised in a very violent home with a lot of trauma. I didn’t realize at the time how having a dog was comforting me and calming me, helping me feel safe, helping me sleep. Sometimes people who experience that dysfunction don’t make it into therapy, but when they do, I want to use any tools I possibly can to help their inner child who just may have had a dog growing up.”

Even for clients “who didn’t grow up with a dog, there’s still a healthy buffer in the room that can [cultivate] safety,” Gluck adds.

Rahel Marti and colleagues’ study published in the journal PLoS ONE in 2022 determined that petting a dog can boost cognitive and emotional activity in the brain and amplify motivation and focus. Mockenhaupt says he’s seen similar instances with his dog; Oskar often provides immediate comfort to the clients, which can help some of them process their emotions longer.

“I had one session when a client was crying and getting deep into something when Oskar just made his way over and started licking the client’s tears,” he recalls. “The client was feeling very seen and supported by Oskar.”

Mockenhaupt admits that Oskar licks clients more than he likes, but it’s always about what’s best for the clients and if they feel comfortable. “One thing I try to always be cognizant of is that having my dog in session isn’t for me; it’s for them. That’s important to separate,” he notes.

Debra Eng, a licensed clinical social worker in Raleigh, North Carolina, works primarily with Medicare clients and uses a biopsychosocial approach. She’s noticed that many of her older clients have a powerful connection with her golden retriever, Juno, a certified therapy dog who has become a special mascot for her staff and clients.

“Everybody has their pet story,” Eng says. “I’ve seen a 76-year-old man whose pet was his companion for 16 years. Now, because of his interaction with Juno, he’s able to grieve that loss with more [openness]. I had another client who had to give up her dog because she was too old to take care of him, so she’s grieving through Juno.”

Eng has also witnessed repressed or suppressed emotions from grief, trauma and various presenting issues come to the surface because of Juno’s presence.

“Some animal-assisted therapy will incorporate the dog as the intervention,” Eng says. “Juno’s presence is the intervention. From his first interaction meeting people at the door, clients who tend to feel anxious and depressed are greeted to feel welcome.”

Rachel Policay and Mariana Falconier’s study on couples and family therapy published in Contemporary Family Therapy in 2019 found that clinicians better related to families and couples through therapy dogs and tense exchanges between family members were lowered as a result of the animal’s presence. VanderKaay, who specializes in relationship and marriage therapy, says he’s seen sessions where Cocoa helps couples find common ground.

“In couples sessions with husbands and wives, Cocoa will often work as the mediator as they’re both connecting to the dog,” he explains.

Mockenhaupt said he’s seen Oskar have a similar ability to diffuse family tension in sessions and pierce through to soothe adults in a unique way.

“I had a mother and a teenager sitting on a couch and Oskar sat right in between them. They petted him and felt safe the entire time we were working through a conflict,” Mockenhaupt recalls.

Having a therapy dog in the room “allows things to happen that would take a much longer time usually,” he adds. For example, he had a client who cited Oskar as one of the main reasons they were able to come out of a panic attack during a session; the dog helped the client regulate.

The power of two

McCutcheon does outreach in her community with her dog. “We have Foster out in the community every other Friday,” she says. Once “there was a death of a senior in high school, so we went out to the vigil for that, and he was wearing a ‘free hugs’ T-shirt.”

Foster has become such a part of the community that McCutcheon includes blog posts on her website for her clinical practice written from Foster’s point of view to cater to his fans. This approach also helps reach a wider audience to inform more people about mental health outside of the therapy room, she adds.

Samet’s organization, Canine Assisted Therapy, has a trauma-support team of volunteers and their dogs for community tragedies, so she’s witnessed how attuned therapy dogs are when they’re on call. After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting — the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history — took place in nearby Parkland, Florida, in 2018, her organization had therapy dogs play a role in healing the community by consoling grief-stricken families. This approach was so helpful that it prompted the group to continue using dogs in other clinical settings, including their therapy offices.

“I’ve seen dogs enable comfort and ease pain when no therapist could,” Samet says. “When therapy dogs combine with therapists, it’s like two (powers) combined.”  

Scott Gleeson is a licensed clinical professional counselor in the Chicago suburbs, specializing in trauma and relational dynamics. He spent over a decade writing for USA Today, where he won national writing awards from the Associated Press and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. His debut contemporary novel, The Walls of Color, and its sequel, Spectrum, will hit bookshelves in 2024 and 2025, respectively.

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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