Thanks to Facebook memories, I was reminded of a beautiful moment that Jersey shared with a client 3 years ago today and I thought it was just too special not to share with you all.
Some of you may know that Jersey has a bit of a proclivity for cuddling up with stuffed animals. She once stole a particularly fluffy teddy bear from a 2-year old’s outstretched hand!
Since her sister, Rory, has been known to eviscerate stuffed animals before you can say “Rory!”, Jersey can only have access to her stuffed animals at work. She likes to have Brown Dog (pictured) next to her during sessions sometimes and will pick it up in her mouth and take it to her bed when she needs some down time. She frets if a small child wants to play with Brown Dog. Jersey loves Brown Dog.
Today a young client and I were talking about different helpful and unhelpful ways that we use to deal with some difficult feelings. I told her about Jersey using Brown Dog to comfort herself when she’s feeling overwhelmed and the client thought that was a good idea and we started working out what she could use as her cuddly talisman.
Completely unbidden, Jersey left her bed and dropped Brown Dog at the client’s feet. She wouldn’t take Brown Dog back when we offered it to her and she left it there when she returned to her bed to snooze.
I teared up. The client was beside herself. Jersey just knew what was needed. The behaviour was so outside the norm for her. I really think she was responding to the client’s need, maybe she recognized her own distress in the client, maybe she was just showing her Brown Dog, but it made my day/week/month and I hope you enjoyed hearing about it!
I am so proud to be able to share this post with you all.
Psychologists and mental health clinicians are actually really restricted with what we can do in terms of ‘promotion’ of our services. Most people don’t know this, but we can’t use any reviews or testimonials from clients and obviously we have to be incredibly careful sharing our ‘success’ stories because maintaining past and current client confidentiality is of the utmost importance to us.
But this is not a testimonial or review, rather it is one young boy’s experience of his anxiety from the inside looking out. It was written by a former client who is now 10-years old and wrote this for a school assignment. He and his family have very kindly given us permission to share this with you (with some identifying details changed).
I hope this gives you some insight into how young people may be experiencing their anxiety and some hope that just like Mr Tony (Stark) here, change and improvement is 100% achievable.
Hi my name is Tony and I have anxiety. I have a twin brother named Peter, but he is nothing like me, he doesn’t have anxiety and isn’t scared to be by himself. Mum and Dad said that when I was little, I had anxiety. They say I was always really sad when I was left at childcare and was even worse when I went to kinder. I never liked being away from my parents.
When I was 4-years old, I was riding my bike home from my friend’s house with my mum. There was a man walking a big dog coming the other way. I stopped my bike and got out of his way. I don’t know why but the dog jumped at me and grabbed my hand in its mouth and ripped me into the ground. Mum said it tore my hand right open and there was blood everywhere. An ambulance had to come and get me and I had to have an operation to save my finger. I don’t really remember it that well, I just remember hearing mum tell the story lots of times. I think this made my anxiety even worse.
I started school the next year and I was fine. I made new friends and started playing sport. When I was in grade 1, I had to have another operation on my hand. I was really scared of the operation because I remembered what the last one was like. My anxiety was really bad again. When I was in grade 3, I had to have another operation and it all happened again.
When I was in grade 4 and on Easter holidays, I got gastro. When I went back to school, I kept getting this feeling in my tummy that made me think that I had gastro. This is when the worst of my anxiety started.
I couldn’t leave my mum’s side. I was scared that I was sick and I needed my mum there in case it happened again. I got so bad that I was too scared to leave home.
Home was my safe place. I was too scared to go to school. Mum and Dad tried everything but it was too hard. My teacher ended up giving me work to do at home and the whole class sometimes wrote nice notes for me. I really missed my friends; I hardly saw them. I missed most of term 2.
In term 3 I started getting out of the house and mum and dad said I had to go back to school. I was terrified and felt sick in my tummy all the time. Mum or Dad came to school with me every day. They sat with me in the classroom and helped me feel safe.
There was an aide in my class called Steve and he was there to help another kid. Steve started to help me so mum and dad could leave the classroom but they couldn’t leave the school. They sat outside the classroom from 9am to 3:30pm every day. They were the best. Without Steve and Mum and Dad being at school every day I would never have got through the year.
This year I am in grade 5 and I got the teacher I wanted. Miss Potts was my teacher in grade 3, the reason why I wanted her is because I knew her and I had been in her class before. Steve was also in the grade ⅚ building every morning.
Soon my class is going to camp but I’m not. I am not ready to be separated from mum and dad for that long. Dad is going to take me up there for one of the days which I am looking forward to.
The last year has really sucked but I got to do some pretty cool stuff too. Dad coached my basketball team and we made it to regionals. I knee boarded for the first time over the summer and it was EPIC! This year I was voted captain for my footy team and so far, we have only lost 1 game. I made it to Divisions in cross-country, high jump and relay events and will be going to Regionals later in the year.
When I think about how far I have come and what I have achieved over the last year I couldn’t have done it without Mum and Dad, Steve, my brother Peter, Hope (counsellor), Carol (Psychologist), Natasha (School Liaison Officer), Mr Stark (Vice Principal), May (Teacher’s Aide), My footy coach Clint, my friends, especially Scott, Nick and Bruce, my Nan, Pa and the rest of my family. I owe you guys.
Now I am 10 years old and still get a bit nervous at times to leave mum and dad. I just have to remember how far I have come and that I am ok.
My beautiful cousin, Gemma and her partner, Dane, were recently faced with one of those moments in life that tests us in ways we never imagined we’d be able to survive until we find ourselves surviving it. Just over 2 months ago, their first child, Tallulah, was born at only 27 weeks old. Thankfully, Tallulah is now finally home with mum and dad, and new mum Gemma has composed this moving piece about their tumultuous time in the hope that it might help other families navigate the overwhelming and sometimes conflicting emotions that such events expose us to.
This photo was captured the day before the day that changed the course of our lives forever.
In the early hours of the following morning, I would start to feel what I now know were labour pains. I thought the pain was my lower back playing up with the weight of a growing baby and belly and so fell back to sleep.
It wasn’t until the sun was up and I felt the pain presenting more like what I imagined contractions would feel like, that we called the midwife and arranged to meet her at the hospital – still not concerned and still not thinking I was in labour. It wasn’t until we were halfway to the hospital that I knew something was wrong.
I was already 5cm dilated when we arrived at the hospital and an hour and a half later, at 10.11am, our darling Tallulah was born.
Nothing prepared me for the sight of a baby so tiny and frail and frog-like. Nothing prepared me for the sense of fight and resilience and strength a human so young, so not done with growing could emanate. And nothing prepared me for the well-meaning ‘at leasts’ that were soon to follow.
There’s no “at least” on this journey.
“At least you didn’t get a saggy belly”
“At least you didn’t get stretch marks”
“At least you didn’t have to give birth to a heavier baby”
“At least you never became uncomfortable”
I both WANTED and WELCOMED those things and more. I loved being pregnant, loved watching my belly grow, I loved showing off my belly. That was cut short. I didn’t get my nine months of feeling all of the pregnant things. I didn’t get to wear cute maternity clothes for months, Calm birthing classes, antenatal classes, a water birth. I didn’t get to feel the strong kicks and movements for a whole nine months.
I know all births don’t go according to “plan” however, I didn’t even get close.
There’s a strong dichotomy in all of this.
On one hand I’m so angry. I want to stamp my feet, clench my fists and yell and curse at the Universe for taking away the experience I’ve dreamt of for so long.
On the other hand I want to bow down and thank the Universe with grace and humility that we have had the experience we have had. It has brought us so much love and kindness we could only imagine existed. It has brought us strength. It brought us our daughter.
On one hand I’m desperately grieving the pregnancy I didn’t get. The time to feel my baby grow, kick, get all up in my ribs, on my bladder. All of the things.
On the other hand I’m so damn happy that my baby was born alive and that she survived.
On one hand I feel a sense of frustration that my body couldn’t keep our baby safe.
On the other hand I’m so relieved my body knew it had to get our baby out to keep her safe.
On one hand I’m annoyed I didn’t get to celebrate the upcoming birth of our baby with a baby shower. To relish in that anticipation and joy with my family and my friends.
On the other hand I’m so blessed to have met amazing women who have also welcomed babies too soon. These women have enriched my life just by sharing a part of themselves with me. I’m blessed to have received so much love from people close to me and those I’ve not spoken with for a very long time. I’m blessed to have received kindness from strangers. I’m blessed to know people care about me, about us.
One emotion I’ve not felt is guilt. I know I did everything I possibly could to give our baby the best start to life. Even before I was pregnant, I was doing my best to give the little soul we were waiting for the best home in which to grow. And I got her there. I got our baby 27 weeks and 6 days along, I got her to 1120g. I got her fit and fierce for her upcoming fight for life.
Above all of this, I feel honoured.
Honoured that my wish to become a mother has come true.
Honoured that I am walking beside a man who has flowed with this journey with his whole being.
Honoured that I have felt all of these emotions for it means I have love in my life to be able to feel them and still feel joy.
Honoured that I am the mother to a fierce and wonderful girl.
A girl I’m so excited and overjoyed to spend the rest of my life guiding and loving with the whole of my heart.
My hope in sharing my story is to show that it’s ok to feel many emotions all at once and that even the dimmest light can brighten by the time you get to the end of that tunnel.
We’re very pleased to have so many of our clinicians trained in EMDR, including Magdalen, Anna & Michelle, as well as a dedicated EMDR therapist in Nina. However EMDR is still a relatively new treatment modality, and can sound more like science-fiction than an evidence-based trauma therapy, so Nina and I put together this article to explain a little about EMDR and how it can help keep the past in the past.
Danielle Graber Clinical Psychologist & Director
EMDR – leaving the past in the past …..
A woman, let’s call her Nancy, comes to a counselling session because whenever her partner or boss becomes irritated with her, she gets overly upset. Nancy has a memory of being age 10, when her alcoholic step-father poked her with his finger whenever he criticised her. Now, when Nancy feels criticised, it’s almost like she is that helpless 10-year old again. Sometimes it’s like she even feels her step-father’s finger poking at her shoulder.
This is just one example of how trauma from an earlier adverse experience can impact on us in the here and now. When a past trauma is triggered by a current event, our adult brain shuts down and we can start to think and feel like the trauma is happening all over again. Any event that overwhelms our ability to cope can create a trauma reaction that stays with us into adulthood. Some of the adverse events that can lead to a trauma reaction include; neglect, abandonment, death of a parent, divorce, family violence, sexual abuse, serious medical illness, disability, war, natural disasters like fires or floods, violence, serious accidents or injury.
We may wonder why do I startle every time I hear a loud noise, a rustle in the bushes, a certain piece of music or even a smell? This is the trauma brain at work, constantly on the lookout for further trauma. It is quite separate from our wise and adaptive adult responses. Calming the trauma response and strengthening the adult ‘wise’ mind is where counselling, in particular EMDR and other trauma therapies can help.
Eye Movement, Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, was designed to disconnect the painful, emotional responses in the present from those past memories and traumas. It was first discovered in the late 1980s by Dr Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist, who serendipitously discovered EMDR during her famous “walk in the woods”, where she noticed that upsetting thoughts and feelings lessened when she sporadically moved her eyes from side to side. One of my colleagues and mentors in the United States jokes in his training workshops that the more likely version of the story is that Shapiro really discovered EMDR when she was in a Macy’s (equivalent to Myer or David Jones in Australia) car park looking frantically from side to side to find her car!
When a trauma or overwhelming adverse event occurs, it seems to get locked in the nervous system with the original picture, sounds, thoughts and feelings and this is why it can be retriggered in the present. The eye movements used in EMDR seem to unlock the nervous system and allow the mind and body to let go of the experience. Perhaps similar to the processing that occurs during REM (or Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
For a lot of people who have experienced significant trauma though, the idea of actually consciously recalling the traumatic event can be utterly overwhelming in and of itself. What if someone doesn’t want to recall the memory or associated feelings, images or body sensations? That’s when the Flash Technique, developed in mid-2016 by Dr Philip Manfield, becomes important. The Flash Technique is used to help reduce the disturbance associated with painful memories without having to consciously recall the memory or re-experiencing the pain or distress associated with the trauma. This technique can be used as a preparation tool for EMDR or on its own.
While we don’t know the precise mechanism behind how EMDR works, the evidence is well and truly in that it does indeed work and work well.
In Nancy’s case, after a course of EMDR treatment, she described the past memories as more ‘distant’, and she could recall those memories without feeling small, belittled or defenceless. This improved her ability to assert herself and her needs and respond in the moment to criticisms without feeling overwhelmed emotionally or any unpleasant physical sensations (like that finger poking at her).
I for one feel very privileged to be involved in some of the amazing innovations that have made this possible and to be able to help clients unlock themselves from memories and traumas that have often haunted them for decades.
Another year, another season of Married at First Sight and another group of people in desperate need of some real therapy throw their emotional lives under a bus for their 15-minutes of Instagram fame. Call me a cynic and a killjoy, but it’s just so frustrating to watch these people, some of whom seem to have real emotional problems and mental health issues get toyed with for entertainment.
Of course you have to call me a hypocrite too, because I still watch it! But this year more than ever, it’s lost some of it’s guilty pleasure for me. Especially because it must make people wonder just what psychology is good for when so called ‘experts’ pair people up that would be lucky to survive a long elevator ride together, let alone a ‘marriage’.
So I’ve asked our child & family counsellor, Penny, to put some of her thoughts together on the ‘experiment’ that is Married at First Sight.
Well aside from the obvious questionable production choices (such as shamelessly sensationalising someone’s virginal status), there has been something else playing on my mind this season.
Almost all of the participants view marriage as the panacea to their life’s problems.
There’s no doubt in my mind that reality television purposefully uses “sob stories” complete with background orchestral strings in an attempt to tug at my heartstrings. The problem with MAFS, however, is that it touts an expert panel of mental health professionals at the helm. They are highly trained individuals who have an ethical duty to provide services that benefit, not harm. These psychologists, and their data (always with the data), sit down with the participants to discuss what has impeded their ability to have a successful relationship. They highlight their vulnerabilities, nod knowingly, and assure them that this experiment is the right fit for them. Despite hearing details about issues of trust, abandonment, childhood trauma or loss, they agree that it would be an excellent idea to proceed with the experiment and pair them up with a life partner who now has the task of fixing their new husband or wife’s problems.
Here’s a perfect example from a recent episode (before things got really intense between these two):
Following 28-year-old Ines crying to the experts about the loss of her childhood due to war and trauma, she says that she is guarded and pushes people away.
She hopes that “this guy” (remember, a complete stranger!) will be the one to make her feel safe enough to be vulnerable and create happy memories that she never got.
One of the “experts” says that Ines wears a mask to cover the pain for a troubled upbringing.
The other expert responds, “Ines wants love but she wants someone who won’t be scared off before they see the real Ines.”
READ: SHE IS SCARED. FLAG.
The apparent solution? Pair her with Bronson who is “calm, fun and strong” and who has also experienced significant grief and loss. Luckily, “he’s still so easy going” and his light-hearted nature will help break down Ines’ walls.
Yes, they may find common ground in their experiences but this is not the solution to unresolved trauma. What they’re essentially saying is, “If she can learn to trust him, this will be successful” and “It’s up to Bronson to fix Ines’ childhood trauma and resulting defences”.
And we all know just how well that turned out for both of them so far! 3 weeks later there’s been nothing but; verbal abuse, complete contempt and emotional infidelity.
I have to believe that given their training and skills, the MAFS experts would be acutely aware of why some of the participants have had difficulty committing to a serious relationship. I also have to remember that this is television and producers will do anything to boost ratings. In the real world, us “experts” would be encouraging these prospective brides and grooms to look inwards (through therapy, self-reflection, or organic supports) instead of seeking an external person to fix their issues.
Aside from my professional perspective on this, I am recently married following seven years of courtship with my now husband. I have learnt a lot about myself, been to therapy, identified my vulnerabilities, had support from my partner to work through them, and dedicated considerable effort to grow and develop as an individual. I cannot imagine going into a blind marriage with the “baggage” I carried throughout my twenties. It would have been completely unrealistic and unfair on a complete stranger to provide the validation I needed when therapy was absolutely necessary (and boy, did it work wonders).
Let’s just remember that MAFS is a bonkers experiment. There have been 33 ‘relationships’ and only one has succeeded beyond the show. I hope this season is different (sucker for love over here!) but it raises so many questions about what people are seeking through marriage.
What I do know is that it’s more than just having the right person plonked down in front of you. These guys could have been matched with their true soul-mates (if you believe in such things), but if they are not in a place to see it, accept it and work at it, there’s no amount of tropical honeymoons and Gold Coast getaways that are going to turn it into anything real.
“How is it therapy when all you do is play games with them?”
Ah, this question. I’m not going to lie, I get it a lot. It’s okay, though, because I can answer it confidently and I can fully appreciate where a parent is coming from when they ask it. They are investing time, money, and energy into the process and I can only imagine that it seems like a very expensive game of Monopoly if they think that’s all their child does during our hour together!
However, I utilise Play Therapy in my sessions for a number of reasons.
First of all, using play creates a positive learning environment. This is important because the evidence shows that a child’s brain needs to be in a particular state for learning to occur. If a child is stressed, uncomfortable, or threatened with their therapist, their brain will be spending WAY more time finding ways to escape/avoid/lash out as a means of survival. I would rather spend time playing so that my client can pay attention to what I have to say as well have the brain capacity to think, share and process.
Secondly, children’s brains are hardwired to learn by doing, not talking. Play provides a crucial opportunity for a child to learn about themselves and about life lessons that can otherwise seem very arbitrary. For example, parents are always asking me how to teach their child empathy. It’s an incredibly vague and abstract concept for a child to grasp, so one of the best ways for a child to develop empathic tendencies is through play! This could include identifying someone who is disappointed when they lose, praising someone when they play well, or including someone who is being left-out.
Thirdly, it’s an important platform for teaching explicit social skills. Some children struggle to initiate play or do not know what to say or how to behave when playing with their peers. As their therapist, I can role model techniques and strategies for them to try out in their own world (and also highlight when maybe they are saying or doing things that aren’t so helpful!).
Let me offer some examples of how some games are helpful therapeutically:
Teaches responsibility such as through; handling money or in following complex rules;
Promotes delayed gratification as it isn’t a game that can be won quickly; and
Allows for disappointment when other players collect more properties or money than them.
Deals with the influence of luck and relinquishing control;
Needs player to cope with frustration if turn is skipped or reversed or when given a +2 or +4; and
Builds confidence as it can be won without significant skill.
Requires patience as there is no winning along the way, just one winner at the end;
Discourages comparison, such as to other people’s boards or progress; and
Encourages player to focus their attention in finding items on their board.
Promotes skill development in problem solving and strategy; and
Requires clear communication and trust in other game players.
Addresses issues with anticipation or heightened arousal;
Provides opportunity to practice frustration tolerance; and
Allows for brief and passing moments of fear to feel less intense.
Ultimately, the very act of play, in a safe space and within a trusting relationship connects and refines important neural pathways. This is the crux of therapy as we are trying to strengthen connections in the brain that help the client to thrive and weaken connections that are less helpful. Play is rewarding and fulfilling so when I use it as a counsellor, I am confident that children are building positive connections to therapy and will more likely explore overwhelming thoughts and feelings with me, or even feel confident to problem-solve on their own.
So, in answer to the question, how is play NOT therapy?
Hi! I’m Penny, a Child and Family Counsellor and the newest addition to the 12 Points team!
I have worked extensively across the community, education and health sectors, developing a specialist understanding of ways we can practically and realistically support the mental health of our kids. And now, I’m offering my services at 12 Points to children aged 3-18 years and their parents.
I am committed to building the clarity, confidence and competence of parents in meeting their children’s social and emotional needs. My model of care prioritises brief-intervention and focuses on enhancing five key, evidence-based areas to give parents the tools they need to help their family to thrive from within, including permission to focus on their own wellbeing.
I strongly believe in the power of connection, so I have made the conscious decision to work with children and their families through the strengthening of relationships. When parents are struggling, the connection with their child can suffer. Without connection to their community and other families, parents can feel isolated and undervalued. In the absence of quality information and guidance about their child’s unique social and emotional development, parents are likely to experience guilt, shame and self-doubt. We all forget sometimes that kids don’t come with a manual!
Take four-year-old Kayla* for example. Kayla’s mum, Sam, held concerns about Kayla’s anxieties and sensitivities and thus brought Kayla to meet with me, wanting to know if Kayla’s behaviour was “normal” or if Sam was doing something wrong and contributing to her daughter’s worries. Over a few sessions, I was able to make informal assessments about Kayla’s mental health and wellbeing, particularly her sensitivities. I prescribed some reading to Sam and her husband to try and help them appreciate Kayla’s individual needs. I also engaged Sam in some discussion about her own mental health, making sure she could take pride in her ability to be reflective and help-seeking with her parenting. It was determined that Kayla could benefit from some social skills training to boost her confidence and Sam agreed to participate in some parenting training with her husband, with content tailored specifically to their family dynamic. Almost a year later, Sam tells me that she and her husband are enjoying a more positive relationship with their daughter, and feel so much more prepared to deal with issues as they arise. Kayla’s mood has, as a result, been more predictable and positive.
This is the flexibility I have as a counsellor. I am not restricted by Medicare rules that mean I can only see the child or only the parent, or only see clients with a diagnosable mental illness. Instead, at each session, I can plan out and determine who should be in the room and why, ensuring that treatment is both cost and time-effective and adaptable to changing circumstances or emerging issues.
Another family, let’s call them The Burkes*, have engaged my support over the past five months and found this approach particularly beneficial. Mum, Catherine, reached out to me in desperation about her eight-year-old daughter’s daily meltdowns. I started by meeting Catherine on her own first in order to understand her concerns about Holly in more detail. Over the next 10 sessions, I met with Catherine and Holly together, Catherine on her own, and Holly and her Dad together, and prescribed between session activities that the whole family could engage in. Catherine reports Holly’s meltdowns are now very rare and she feels that she and her husband are more confident in their responses to Holly, which has reduced their own anxiety and made the whole household a lot more relaxed.
My beautiful schnoodle, Ralph, and I look forward to seeing you around the clinic and if you have any questions about whether my services could help you or your family, just speak to the lovely admin team!
* client names and identifying details have been changed for privacy.
You could say that I’ve always been somewhat of a worrier – not quite full-blown anxiety, but certainly a lot of stressing about the little things, needing to always consider contingency plans and dwelling on the worst-case scenarios.
I’ve been doing a little mindfulness practice the last couple of weeks, and I can personally report some excellent results. A few minutes a day of either guided mindfulness or some unguided time focusing on breathing and quietening the mind has injected some calm into my brain that I didn’t know it was capable of.
Petty annoyances have dropped away, complicated problems are easier to handle and I’m even being kinder to the people I encounter in my day, friends and strangers alike. Some familiar worry lines are still there in my thoughts, but it’s easier to recognise them for what they are and set them aside.
Where to start? ‘Start small’ is my recommendation, that’s what I’ve done. Download a free and straight-forward guided mindfulness app like Smiling Mind. No doubt your day is packed to the brim with stuff you have to do, but 5 minutes of one of the guided sessions will make the rest of the day that much more manageable.
The book Quiet the Mind (available for a browse in the Crown Court waiting room) is also a great starting point, and the documentary The Connection will get you thinking about the convergence of mindfulness and medical science.
So when we left Part I, Rory was going through her ‘rebellious’ phase and I was wondering if she had what it takes to be a therapy dog (and if we’d ever be able to leave the house safely again).
At about this time I came across Lead The Way Psychology and Animal-Assisted Therapy (ltw.com.au), it was exactly what we’d been looking for! They specialise in training animal-handler teams for animal-assisted intervention work (including AAT). Psychologists, social workers, teachers, volunteers, anyone who is interested in working (or volunteering) with their dog in a therapeutic capacity, can apply for their 6-day intensive, introductory program.
The program covers; basic obedience and behaviour shaping as well as current research and theory into the benefits and techniques of AAI and AAT. And when they say intensive, they mean intensive!
Rory and I worked hard that week! But on the first day she went from a dog who would sit on command if she felt like it and hold it for as long as she deemed necessary (like most pets!) to a dog that would reliably sit on first command and stay there until released. It was astounding!
They showed us video at the beginning of the week of a group of dogs all holding a drop pose in a large group under insane levels of distraction (ride on mowers driving past, squeaky toys being held in front of them, food being thrown on the ground around them) and told us that our dogs would be able to do that by the end of the week. We all laughed and looked at them like they were crazy, but by the third day, our dogs were holding drop for an hour at a time while we had a leisurely lunch right in front of them!
And by the end of the week, sure enough, we knew how to hold their attention under all kinds of distraction!
The initial training really strengthened the bond and the trust between Rory and I and she responded incredibly well to the Alpha training methods (alphacanineprofessional.com.au). The most important parts of the training, for me, were to see how Rory would react under stress and to help her develop the ability to work well and calmly under distraction. It’s so important to have confidence that at times when she does become overtired or overwhelmed that she will look to me for direction rather than try and figure her way out of it alone. That is often where problems can occur – a dog that doesn’t have that leadership from their owner/handler is much more likely to snap when an overenthusiastic child gets in their face, steps on their tail or hugs them tightly around the head (all of which has happened to Rory in sessions).
Finally, it was time for our first day on the job – and while I’ve included a sneak peek picture of that below, we might have to leave the details for another time! Please stay tuned for the third and final instalment in The Evolution of a Therapy Dog!
When Rory and I completed our first training course in animal-assisted therapy (AAT) back in 2013, we joined a pool of 21 certified animal-assisted therapy teams who graduated that year and the majority of participants wanted to volunteer with their dogs in nursing homes or schools. The concept of working with animals in psychological settings was still quite new in Australia. Often, when I said I was an animal-assisted therapist, most people assumed that meant I was providing therapy to maladjusted Chihuahuas or socially awkward felines.
Cut to 2017 and AAT is being featured in major newspapers and on tv programs, absolutely flooding social media and online newsfeeds and there will be a grand total of 80 graduates from the Lead the Way Institute AAT course this year alone. At the recent Education Show, more than half of the people who came to speak to us about the programs we provide had heard of AAT and most wanted to know where they could go to get AAT training. However, disturbingly, a significant number also spoke about people they knew or worked with who were already bringing dogs to their workplaces (mainly schools in this instance) and didn’t I think that was wonderful?
The short answer is, no. No, I don’t think that’s wonderful at all. In fact, I fear it is a recipe for disaster and it compelled me to write this article in response.
Now, for those of you who are familiar with me, or with our work here at 12 Points Psychology, you know I am a passionate advocate for the wonders of AAT and am prone to proudly and loudly extolling its virtues whenever and wherever I can (hence the recent Education Show). However, I am also a passionate advocate for evidence-based therapy and maintaining the strictest health and well-being standards for myself, my clients and my animals. I fear that the recent (and primarily welcomed) upsurge in interest for AAT is creating a situation where the availability of qualified, certified, trained and assessed AAT teams cannot meet the demand. This in turn means that well-meaning but untrained therapists are stepping in to try and provide a (very popular) service, but without the proper training in place to ensure the health and safety of the practitioners, recipients and animals or the integrity of the therapy or intervention itself.
I don’t believe for a second that these practitioners are anything other than well-meaning and I know that they do care for their clients and their animals. But as the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know” and I fear their lack of proper training means that many providers who decide to “just bring their dog to work”, won’t know how much they don’t know until it’s too late and someone has been badly hurt.
I have covered the work involved in certifying an AAT handler team in previous posts, which I invite you to look at here, so I won’t repeat myself, but what’s most relevant to this article, is that, aside from providing:
a solid theoretical foundation in the use of AAT,
an overview of health and safety concerns when working with animals
basic obedience training and
a network of other AAT providers for ongoing help, advice and support,
the training process in its entirety is crucial in establishing a trusting bond between the animal and handler and there’s no substitute for that.
It really doesn’t matter how sweet or docile a dog is under controlled, familiar conditions at home, what is of utmost importance is knowing how a dog behaves when it’s stressed and tired and subjected to poor handling or novel conditions.
What’s equally important is knowing how to recognise and respond to a problem before it arises. Because, no matter how careful we are with our dogs, clients can sometimes be inappropriate with them, either from exuberance or aggression, and at those times it’s incredibly important that we are able to read the dog’s body language and intervene to; keep the dog safe, keep the client safe and also preserve the therapeutic relationship.
I am the last person in the world to discourage anyone from exploring AAT. It is an enriching and engaging field that I am privileged to be a part of. But equally, I am also the last person in the world who can watch an accident about to happen without trying to intervene. It would be beyond tragic for all involved to see the practice of AAT sullied by an incident where a stressed out dog reacts against a client. Especially if that could so easily be prevented with the proper training and certification systems in place.
So for practitioners, if you’re interested in learning more about AAT, get in touch with me here at 12 Points Psychology, or Melanie Jones at Lead the Way Institute.
For consumers, believe me when I say, I understand the lure of a dog! And I know how much the AAT animals can add to the therapeutic environment and experience, but make sure your AAT provider has received proper training. At a minimum, they should;
outline their AAT work on their consent forms,
have policies & procedures in place for the use of the animals (including hygiene practices) and
they should be able to explain the purpose of having the animal in session with you.
The inclusion of animal-assisted therapy is an exciting development in the provision of psychological services and I want to ensure it’s a service that continues to safely grow in both popularity and accessibility. My only hope is that it doesn’t prove too popular for its own good. Because we want to keep providing this service for many years to come to as many people as possible. Rory for one wouldn’t have it any other way!