A day in the life of an AAT dog

People often ask what exactly we do with our therapy dogs in sessions so I thought I’d do a bit of a run down of a typical day at our Windermere office.

9.30 – We arrive at work and gather up our dog-friendly office supplies like; the water bowl, bed and blanket. This usually takes around 15 minutes as Rory and Jersey tend to attract a lot of attention, cuddles and pats from the other staff members and sometimes visitors.

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Getting early morning cuddles from the staff before work actually starts.

However today the office was pretty quiet so it only took us 5 minutes to gather everything together and set up the office (see video).

10.30 – Is usually when we start seeing clients. Sometimes I work directly with the dogs in the sessions (AAT) and sometimes it’s more of an animal-assisted intervention (AAI), where the dog’s presence alone is of benefit and comfort to the client. For example, one of our clients is a young woman with a significant trauma history. She has problems with self-worth and confidence and is currently depressed. She often looks drawn and tired and walks with hunched shoulders. Rory always greets her with tail-wagging and a happy bounce and I swear the client’s face just lights up and she walks taller. She looks lighter and more relaxed than at any other time that I see her and loves to sit with Rory on her lap while we talk.

An example of a more typical AAT session would be how the girls and I are working with a young girl with low-functioning autism who has severe expressive language and anxiety issues. She finds it very hard when visiting new places and extremely hard separating from her mother. She met Jersey at her first session and quickly decided that wherever Jersey was going, she wanted to go too! This made the transition to the therapy room immeasurably easier and the dogs now provide an indirect way for the client to communicate as well as serving as role models for; appropriate boundary setting, emotional regulation and social skills development. For example, we spent some time showing the client how to correct the dog for getting too “up close and personal” (i.e., Rory licking!) without losing her temper, getting frustrated or even needing to use verbal language. Her mother says this has already translated into improved responses in her interactions with other children at school.

1.30 – This is our lunch break, and we always go for a short walk to clear our heads! While I’m catching up on paperwork the dogs are usually snoozing on their bed, it’s tiring work being a therapy dog! Often this is also when staff members might drop by for a cuddle or two – and the girls never object.

 

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It’s a hard life.

2.30 – Over the course of the afternoon we’ll normally see another 3 or 4 clients. Sometimes the girls will be working directly with the client in an AAT capacity, such as; helping a child to follow instructions and pass them on (via trick training), working on emotional identification or empathy development (“How do you think Rory is feeling right now?” or “How do you think Jersey would feel if…”) or social skills and sharing via a human versus canine version of Simon Says…

At other times watching the client interact with the dog may give me a lot of valuable information that informs my assessment, diagnosis and/or treatment, e.g., the young boy who teases Rory (who is bouncy and ‘loud’ like his older brother) but who is incredibly gentle and affectionate with Jersey (who is much quieter and shy like him), or the teenage girl with esteem and attachment issues who can’t understand why the dogs like her and want pats from her.

Finally, sometimes, just having the dogs there for cuddles and affection is all the client needs. And at the end of a long day, it’s sometimes exactly what the therapist needs too! We usually finish up with clients by about 5.30 and then it’s time to pack the room back up, and head home for dinner.

The dogs are usually pretty tired by the end of a day like that which is why I try to avoid working with the same dog two days in a row, it gives them a break and gives the clients a chance to work with both dogs at different times.

I hope you enjoyed this little sneak peek into a typical day working with my girls!

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Rory falling asleep sitting up on the way home from work!
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Jersey falling asleep on the laptop after a long day at work.

 

 

But I’m not crazy! Who exactly needs psychology?

It’s a sad and often over-quoted fact that more people commit suicide in this lucky country each year than die on the roads (over 2,000 versus around 1,000), yet the subject of mental health, which is pretty integral to that particular statistic, remains largely off topic. That is, unless it’s being used by the celebrity du jour as an excuse for their; affair, embezzling, violent outbursts or drug use.

If you went solely off the media representations of mental illness you would have to believe that all people with a mental illness are violent, unhinged, non-functional, completely out-of-control reprobates. Why would anyone want to voluntarily put up their hand to join that group?

However, the truth is so far removed from the media hype as to be embarrassing to the journalists who report it as fact. The real truth is far less sensational or sexy (which is probably why it doesn’t get much play). In fact, it’s closer to the inspirational Facebook memes that often do the rounds –  how’s that for terrifying? Facebook memes more accurate than mainstream media reporting!

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I don’t know what that means for anti-vaxxers and paleo-dieters, but for those with mental illness, it boils down to this:

  • Mental illness really can affect anyone – any age, any gender, any socioeconomic status, any occupation and at any time. While those factors may influence what kind of treatment you have access to, they have nothing to do with who is affected.
  • Mental illness encompasses everything from acute stress reactions following a traumatic event to major depression and other mood disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and anxiety-based illnesses.
  • Mental illness is in NO WAY a sign of weakness. It’s an illness. There may be vulnerabilities in your genetic make-up or early life experiences that made some people more susceptible to a particular disorder, but blaming someone for their mental illness makes about as much sense as blaming them for, or expecting them to snap out, of a cancer diagnosis.
  • 90% of people with a mental illness have absolutely no history of violence.
  • The majority of people in Australia affected by a mental illness won’t seek professional help (around 65%). Can you imagine if 65% of people with a broken leg never went to the doctors?
  • The majority of Australians with a mental illness are everyday, functioning children, adolescents and adults who don’t use their mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, but often suffer in silence rather than face potential stigma from family, friends or co-workers.
  • Help really does help. For those who attend appropriate professional services, the course of their illness tends to be shorter and less severe and they are less likely to relapse in the future.

While treatment for acute or chronic mental illness is incredibly important work for all psychologists, and deserves a much more even-handed and well-informed nationwide discussion, it’s equally important to realise that a diagnosable mental illness isn’t the only reason for seeking professional help.

Psychology, literally, means the study of the mind and its functions. But more than that, it’s the study of people and behaviour and relationships and why we do the things we do. I’m willing to admit that I have a pretty strong bias given my chosen profession, but I haven’t met too many people in life that wouldn’t have benefited from some objective, professional guidance in at least one of these areas at some point in their lives. Maybe it’s getting an outside perspective on career choices or family dynamics, or that elusive work/life balance. Maybe you need to learn how to deal with having an adorable 8-year old child who turned into the demon spawn from hell at age 13. Or maybe you can’t figure out why you always seem to pick the same no-good partners/jobs/friends.

All of these are good and valid reasons for seeking therapy and I hope one day we can see this type of therapeutic support as no different from getting an accountant to help with your taxes. Especially because, ideally, addressing these kinds of issues early on, also reduces the likelihood of bigger issues coming up down the track.

So, the moral of the story, you don’t need to be “crazy” to need a psychologist, you just need to need someone to listen and help guide you to your own answers. What’s so crazy about that?

are you happy