I have always loved dogs and found them incredibly therapeutic, with an uncanny ability to hold my emotions, whatever mood I might be in, offering a paw in support, never criticising and always pleased to see me. There is a growing amount of research to show the calming effect a pet can have on the body, reducing blood pressure, slowing breathing and relaxing muscle tension. A dog’s gaze has been found to increase oxytocin levels in its owner,1 and stroking a dog for only 10 minutes a day can result in a significant reduction in cortisol.2 So it seemed natural to combine my love of animals with my chosen profession.
I have been using my therapy dog Mo in my private practice sessions for the past two-and-a-half years. Mo is a seven-year-old Border terrier who is friendly, calm, almost silent and finds other people far more interesting than me, which makes her perfect for this role. She is a registered Pets As Therapy dog, which means she went through an assessment procedure to make sure her obedience training and temperament would fit with working with vulnerable children and adults in environments that might be alien and distracting, such as hospitals, care homes and schools. Passing this assessment means she can be insured as part of my private practice, at minimal additional cost.
Mo’s participation in sessions is dependent on the client’s wishes but also on the relationship she develops with individuals. After greeting clients, she will tend to jump up on the sofa with them (of which they have been warned) and cuddle up or show her desire for a tummy rub. She helps to break the ice during initial sessions, and can take the intensity out of what for clients can be quite an overwhelming experience. Clients have something else to focus on, other than the attention they are receiving from me.
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Interactions between Mo and clients vary greatly. I’ve seen her simply curl up and sleep when the client is focused on their narrative, and I have seen her fall backwards into their arms, so they end up holding her like a baby. Clients can be taken aback by the level of trust she is willing to show them – something they have found extremely touching and validating.
It’s really interesting to see how clients respond to her occasional demands on them, such as whining and pawing. We can explore what is going on for them when they cannot fathom what she wants or how they feel if she jumps off the sofa and decides to curl up elsewhere. They may also witness their own impact on her – she’s not keen on loud noises and may back off from raised voices. It can feel much safer to explore these feelings initially rather than how they might be feeling towards me.
What she is also able to offer is the experience of touch – a basic need that is incredibly important but ethically questioned within therapy. For some clients, this might be the only safe touch they are receiving in their lives.
What I also sometimes notice is that, when clients go into a rhythmic state of stroking her, their speech can become more fluid and less guarded. Maybe there is some neuroscience behind this, or maybe it’s just the ‘Mo effect’.
Clients are not obliged to have Mo in the room, but all except one, who has a skin allergy, has wanted her in sessions. It’s surprising to see how clients who have been fairly neutral about her presence will immediately comment if for some reason she isn’t here. Mo’s own wellbeing is a priority. I leave 25 minutes between sessions so there is time to give her a walk around the block and have refreshments.
Yes, there have been some embarrassing experiences, flatulence being the most common, but at least we can genuinely blame the dog.
1. Nagasawa M et al. Dog’s gaze at its owner increases owner’s urinary oxytocin during social interaction. Hormones and Behaviour 2009; 55(3): 434-441.
2. Handlin L et al. Short-term interaction between dogs and their owners: effects on oxytocin, cortisol, insulin and heart rate – an exploratory study. Anthrozoös 2011; 24: 301–315.