Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud was known to have his dogs present during client sessions, and an animal’s soothing presence has long been noted for therapeutic properties, says Ellen Winston, co-founder of Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado.
Mike Gooch’s daughter, Audie (photo right), stands with Moon, a horse at Home on the Range, a therapeutic equine program in North Dakota.
“An animal present provides a social lubricant,” Winston says. “It’s a neutral topic to discuss, especially for children and adolescents.”
Animal therapy can mean two different things, she says. There is the volunteer type of animal therapy where individuals bring their pets into various settings — like hospitals and schools — to lift people’s spirits. The other type is focused on social workers, counselors and therapists who include animals to aid a therapy session. She adds that a variety of animals can be beneficial, including goats, rabbits, cats, ferrets, guinea pigs and even rats. But dogs and horses are the most common animals incorporated into therapy.
“These animals can mirror what someone is going through internally and the social worker can learn more about their client this way, and (by) watching the interaction, than just through talking,” Winston says. “And it’s a lot more fun to be outside, or even inside, grooming a horse and playing with a dog.”
According to social worker Pam Dudek, who works with clients at Maryland Therapeutic Riding Center, animals like horses meet people where they are — just like social workers are trained to do.
“Working in these settings provides a great complement to what we as social workers already do,” she says.
NASW member Sara Willerson presented at the NASW national conference in the breakout session “Equine Intervention.” She runs Horses, Heart and Soul on Wolf Tree Ranch in Little Elm, Texas, where she and her seven horses work with children, adults, couples and families in what Willerson calls equine-facilitated psychotherapy.
She says the term came about in the 1980s, and is defined as experiential psychotherapy that includes equine handling, grooming, lunging and riding.
“Horses have the ability to support peoples’ healing process through all diagnoses and presenting issues,” she says. “My practice primarily focuses on working with clients (children and adults) who have experienced trauma, depression, addiction and life transitions.”
Horses are prey animals, she says, which means they are always aware of what is happening in their environment — and this helps to keep them safe.
“As we are a predator to them, they are looking to see if we are congruent — that our insides match our outsides.,” she says. “If we are not congruent, then that is a threat for them.”
At Horses, Heart and Soul, Willerson’s different types of client-horse interactions depend on each client’s needs.
“Sometimes grooming is involved, or learning to put a halter on, or seeing if you can get a horse to walk with you,” she says. “It’s not about learning how to ride, but helping someone connect with their internal space. You don’t have to have horse experience to come out here.”
NASW member Mike Gooch, clinical director at Home on the Range in North Dakota, says horses are incredibly intuitive animals and their brains can be a lot like the brain of a trauma-affected human — sensitive and vulnerable.
Mike Gooch (photo right), the clinical director at Home on the Range, stands with Three-Socks, another horse in the program.
Gooch also presented in the Equine Intervention breakout session during NASW’s July conference. He and NASW member Laura Feldman, along with a team of staff and social workers, work with children and adolescents through a therapeutic equine program offered at Home on the Range.
The program targets a variety of behavioral issues, and teaches youths how to make better decisions, recognize behavioral patterns and heal.
“Kids take the activities they do with the horses, and their life story unfolds,” says Feldman, equine director at the Range.
She describes a Post-it exercise where participants write down different things they are thinking about — such as their attitude, grief, loss, etc. — and then they stick one note on each leg of the horse they are paired with.
“One participant tried to lean over to pick up her horse’s leg with a sticky note that read ‘grief and loss’ and the horse side-stepped,” Feldman says. “She stood up with tears in her eyes and said, ‘This horse is just like me!’”
Activities like this, Feldman says, create metaphors and the kids realize what’s going on inside, and what’s real to them.
“Using the example of the Post-it, we can ask what happens if we don’t take care of this leg labeled grief and loss, and get the hoof clean,” Feldman says. “The answer from the participant was ‘Well, it’ll get lame and die.’ So we have to work to get this hoof clean.”
Willerson says equine-facilitated psychotherapy is a fairly new practice, but the field is growing and expanding.
“Horses take therapy to a whole new level,” she says.
The three most commonly known programs to learn about equine-assisted therapy are Eponaquest, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association and the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
Willerson recommends these for interested social workers to do research and find the program that best resonates with them.
“It’s really important to learn about horses and who they are,” she says. “When you talk about the body, mind and soul connection, that is where they are.”
Stella (right), is a Shi Tzu that psychologist Lorraine Wodiska uses in psychotherapy sessions with clients.
Stella likes to greet people at the door, and sometimes she’ll bring her toys over to play. She seems to have an intuition for what others are feeling and experiencing, even before they talk about it.
Stella is a 9-pound Shi Tzu, who her owner says is immensely helpful in therapy sessions with clients.
Psychologist Lorraine Wodiska, who has a private practice in Arlington, Va., owns Stella, who she says sets the stage with clients.
“When they arrive at the outside door, Stella will invariably run up to them wagging her tail. She makes them feel welcome immediately, even before a session begins,” she says.
Wodiska and Stella presented in September at the NASW Maryland Chapter’s seminar called “Therapy is Going to the Dogs: Basics of Animal Assisted Psychotherapy.”
Before bringing Stella into sessions, Wodiska had planning sessions with a dog trainer to understand how to make the therapeutic situation safe and what to focus on during the early months of her dog-assisted psychotherapy.
“Then I began to watch how people interacted with her,” Wodiska says. “Interestingly, someone in a three-piece suit would get down on the ground to play with her without thinking twice.”
NASW member Gary P. Cournoyer says he used to keep photos of his chocolate Labrador, Cisco, at his office in the Rhode Island juvenile correctional facility. Cournoyer counseled the youth at the facility, and they would often ask him questions about Cisco once they saw the pictures.
“They started talking about their pets, and it became a link to talk to them,” Cournoyer says. “They seemed to be more comfortable. I thought, ‘There has to be something to this.’”
After receiving some training through an animal-assisted training program in Rhode Island, Cournoyer began bringing Cisco to work.
“These kids from all sorts of rough backgrounds — gangs, posses — were incarcerated for different reasons,” he says. “But dogs are completely nonjudgmental. They don’t care what you’ve done, what your socio-economic status is, and they give unconditional love. These kids could just be kids when Cisco was in the room.”
He says it was incredible the things he saw when his clients interacted with Cisco. His dog broke down a lot of barriers, and the kids would open up about different parts of their lives, like problems with girlfriends and peer issues, while playing with or petting Cisco in group sessions.
“These kids would come in with some pretty intense things to talk about,” Cournoyer says. “Cisco could sense when someone was stressed, and he’d often go put his head in their lap. Once, there was a kid detailing all the loss he’d been through, and the whole time he was telling his story he was hugging Cisco.”
Wodiska says dogs can create a sense of safety, and they reduce stress hormones. When dogs and humans interact, both limbic systems release the bonding hormone oxytocin, so there is a neurological reason behind why dogs can be so comforting, she says.
“In the brain of the patient and the brain of the dog, there is an interaction and a relationship happening,” Wodiska says. “The dog feels the bond as well.”
A sign at Maryland Therapeutic Riding Center (right), where social worker Pam Dudek works with clients, warns oncoming traffic of horse and rider crossings.
She says when working with dogs in therapeutic settings, there are many ethical issues for social workers to consider, such as whether the animal is comfortable around people, understanding signs when the dog is stressed, whether the clients are open to having a dog around, and to be mindful of the dog’s needs as well as the patient’s needs.
Stella is also a Canine Good Citizen, Wodiska says, and a Certified Pet Partner. This means she has gone through a series of exams that are important in determining if she is well-behaved and appropriate to work with strangers and around loud noises, can be handled somewhat awkwardly, and knows basic dog obedience.
“There are ethical needs to consider where the patient is involved, and also where the dog is involved,” she says. “For example, with clients I make sure they know about Stella before their first visit, and they’re comfortable with it. For Stella, I make certain she has been well-exercised in the morning and she has times between sessions when she can have doggie playtime. Being a therapy dog is a complex and stressful situation for a dog and it is important that she has the capacity and physical space to recover from the encroachment of strangers who display a wide range of emotions with some frequency.”
Cournoyer says Cisco has passed away, so he now brings his Labrador and Golden Retriever mix, Iko, to his private practice in Newport, R.I. Iko helps facilitate client sessions just like Cisco used to.
If social workers want to explore adding a dog to therapy sessions, it’s important to be sure the dog is calm and easy-going enough to handle all temperaments, and to also accredit the animal as a pet partner, he says.
“Most places that do the accreditation will certify you and the dog as a team,” Cournoyer says. “This means when you and your dog are at ‘work,’ you can’t leave your dog alone with someone, and no one else can assume your role in the team.”
He says most states have a couple of organizations that offer pet accreditation, and social workers can do a Google search to find the best one for them.
“I put a bandana on Iko when he comes to work with me, and he knows he’s doing a special thing that involves just the two of us,” Cournoyer says. “For a client, to have this animal approach them and not do anything but give them unconditional love — that means something.”
“Equine therapy dates back as far as Socrates.” — Mike Gooch
“Shi Tzu’s are a very personal breed. They were meant to keep an emperor’s lap or feet warm.” — Lorraine Wodiska
“Horses want you to own what you feel in their presence and not hide it, even if you’re afraid.” — Sara Willerson