The Art of The Possible With Animal-Assisted Therapy
The Beginnings of a Counsellor:
My burning desire when I entered the field of counselling was to be of service to people who felt stuck. The first job I had in the counselling field, when I was fresh out of university, was for an employment counselling agency. My role was to work with clients who were unemployed, and assist them in securing employment. Sounds straightforward enough, right? What I actually discovered very quickly was that my clients were without work for very significant reasons: depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety, to name a few. Many of my clients had immigrated to Canada from countries in war, extreme poverty, and chaos. These folks had witnessed and lived through horrors and tragedies beyond description. It didn’t feel right to keep the focus on work-related goals when their emotional life was in need of nurturing. It also didn’t feel right to refer them to someone else after they had already been bounced around to so many workers. But ethically, I didn’t have the skills to provide mental health counselling. An undergraduate degree in psychology doesn’t fully equip a person with the necessary skills to be a Counsellor. While I had a very good work relationship with my employer, she was constantly reminding me to keep my focus with clients on work-related goals, and to refer them out for everything else. Needless to say, employment counselling wasn’t the profession for me! I applied to the University of Calgary and after 3 brilliant-laborious-inspiring years I graduated with a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology.
It’s hard to talk about the tough stuff!
It is so much easier to talk about the things that make us feel comfortable, to stay within our comfort zone and not push the limits of our window of tolerance. Suppression and denial can become habits and if we stay disconnected from our strong emotions for too long, eventually we start to fear having emotions. But connecting with emotions (in titrated ways) and pushing the limits of our comfort zone is exactly how healing, insight and awareness, and change start to happen.
My next burning desire as a Counsellor was to make it not so damn hard for people to connect with the tough stuff. I love animals, and animals have always been a source of comfort for me during difficult times. Perhaps an animal in the counselling room would be comforting to clients. Over the years that followed, I researched and learned about animal-assisted therapy, eventually concluding that a service dog would be the route to follow.
Enter 2015: the year of the dog
Okay, not really. In the Chinese zodiac it was actually the year of the sheep. But in my family, it was the year of the dog. I had decided on a breed and a trainer, and flew all the way across Canada to adopt Maven, a Shiloh Shepherd.
The adorable fluff-ball… with razor sharp teeth!
Maven was a super cute rambunctious ball of fluffy fur. But looks can be deceiving! At 3 months old, Maven nipped excessively, jumped up, and defecated in the house. Everyone wanted to cuddle her but no one dared get too close! I am pleased to say that by 4 months, Maven had settled down and was no longer nipping (and was successfully doing ‘her business’ outside). By 6 months, I began working with 2 fantastic trainers: Cheri Kolstad, a service dog trainer based out of Penticton, and Vernon’s own The Crate Escape obedience dog trainer Vanessa.
When Maven was 1 year old, I began taking her to work with me. While she was largely still in training, it was amazing how transformative sessions became with her present.
Please note: Having a dog in session isn’t for everyone, and I always ask a client’s permissions prior to bringing Maven in.
Susan Guttridge is a trauma-informed Master level Counsellor with the clinical designation of Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCPA). She has 20+ years experience providing individual and group therapy.