The Furry Therapist: How Dogs Aid Psychotherapy

by drlazarus on March 19, 2013

Therapy DogResearch and my personal observations show that a well-trained therapy dog often is a patient’s best friend during counseling sessions. Brief interactions with therapy dogs can decrease production of the stress hormone epinephrine, reduce blood pressure and decrease anxiety.

Dogs can be ideal healers if they themselves are loved, treated well and properly trained for animal assisted therapy (AAT). They excel at therapeutic interactions — such as cuddling up against a withdrawn child — and give love unconditionally. Friendly, non-judgmental and well behaved, an animal assisted therapy dog helps put a patient at ease.

That’s a good description for my furry co-therapist, Zeke.

A Seeing Heart Dog
Zeke quickly tunes in to the moods of young children, teens and adults troubled by a wide range of problems including autism, child abuse and neglect, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Not only is he one of my most loyal and trusted friends but also one of my best resources for relaxing patients. Zeke helps patients reduce their anxiety and feel comfortable.

Zeke does this with restraint. He gently approaches patients only when they welcome him and give permission through their words and actions. Of course, as an AAT dog he is also trained to pay close attention to my carefully directed cues. Zeke is what some therapists call a ‘seeing heart dog.’

During these interactions, I read the body language — both of Zeke and patients who may be having trouble sharing — to gain valuable information that helps me understand patient states of mind and what questions to ask to facilitate discussion.

Nothing to Sneeze At
Zeke generally won’t make you sneeze or feel itchy. He is a Labradoodle, which means he is part Labrador and part poodle. As with poodles, Labradoodles are hypoallergenic and usually don’t cause allergic reactions.

Similar to both breeds, Labradoodles are gentle and intelligent. So Zeke is well cut out for care giving and aiding in problem solving. His fur and his loving concern are nothing to sneeze at.

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