Over the past 10 years, I have used dogs with great success to help teach concepts such as trust, goal setting, behavior modification, consistency, patience and taking the perspective of others. In addition, the way the person interacts with the dog often says a lot about how they were raised, and what communication, coping and parenting skills they may have.
We all interpret the world through our own eyes, shaped by our own experiences. I video tape patient/animal interactions. After a therapy session with an animal, may patients and I will discuss what they say, felt and interpreted in the animal’s behavior and examine alternate explanations (if any) for those behaviors. A common example is when a client says that “Kara just won’t listen to me.” Kara is a cattle dog, and very smart. She also very much wants to please, but she is submissive. She needs a leader, much like children need an adult guide in life. We talk about how trust is earned, not freely given, and what can be done in the human-dog relationship to earn that trust and become the leader. One of the reasons I use Kara as a therapy dog is not because she is perfectly trained and compliant. She is a sweetheart, but she is a challenge. As a cattle dog, she is high strung and has to be reminded and rewarded for sitting still and not acting on every impulse. On the farm, Kara protects the chickens, and has identified which birds are supposed to be there, and which ones (err…the Canada Geese) are not. She also has to resist her urge to “herd” all of the chickens and ducks—-true to form, they do not like getting in a row. Our other dog Raina (a terrier mix) will stand at the feet of a new person until they give her the attention and love she feels she deserves. She comes from an abusive background and just wants to be loved. Again, is she the textbook therapy animal, no, but understanding her behavior and accepting her and her imperfections is part of the therapy process.
As many of you know we recently added a pair of retired miniature donkeys to our program. This is interesting for a number of reasons. Many of my patients have not grown up around donkeys (or horses for that matter) so it is hard for them to conceptualize an animal that large (about 400 pounds) as being a prey animal. One of the first things we do with the donkeys on the farm is have people sit either outside on the barn porch (or in the barn if the weather is bad) and talk about the top 10 ways donkeys are similar to themselves or someone they know.
1. Donkeys are very stoic. When they have a problem, it takes an alert person to notice a difference in behavior
2. Donkeys often run (or freeze) when they get scared.
3. Donkeys will resist doing something they are afraid of or that makes them uncomfortable.
4. Donkeys are very curious
5. Spoiled donkeys will be bossy and temperamental
6. Donkeys love to please. A strong verbal correction is almost all they ever need.
7. Donkeys are very sensitive, and will respond to stress or illness in their handlers, usually by nuzzling or comforting them.
8. Donkeys are very smart. If they get away with something once, they will likely remember and repeat.
9. Donkeys are very resilient animals.
10. Donkeys need time to rest and relax each day. If they do not feel safe, they cannot do this, which often leads to an ill-tempered 400-pound creature.
After the group discussion, we observe the donkeys, and I have the patients talk about what they think the donkeys would be saying. That usually lightens the mood a it. After a brief discussion about how to approach and interact with the donkeys, we go in and meet them.
The session wraps up by talking about how the experience was similar and different to what they expected, what they may have learned from a donkey and how they could implement that in their daily life.
Tanks for dropping by. Look for more posts, and even some videos when it gets a bit warmer.