While in graduate school earning my degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, I spent a semester working as a student counseling intern at a psychiatric hospital. Also at that hospital worked a Therapy Dog named Brinkley who offered a sweet and calming presence to the patients with whom he worked. Brinkley was the first Therapy Dog I’d met. While I had known of working Service Dogs, I had never met a Therapy Dog and was excited to learn about the difference between the two and something called Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT).
Pawsibilities Unleashed, a non-profit organization in Frankfort, Kentucky who both trains and provides service and therapy animals defines therapy animals as “companion animals that are trained to offer comfort and support to people. These animals go into nursing homes, hospitals, schools, and other places to help bring happiness and joy to those they work with.” Additionally, Pawsibilities Unleashed explains that AAT “involves an animal with specific characteristics becoming a fundamental part of a person’s [client’s] treatment. Animal-assisted therapy is designed to improve the physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning of the patient, as well as provide educational and motivational effectiveness for participants. AAT dogs are trained to interact with patients using Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) to help them achieve certain goals. They are used in conjunction with counselors, teachers, or therapists. ” After I completed my practicum at the hospital with Brinkley, I decided that my practice as a clinician would one day include a Therapy Dog with the use of AAT.
A few years later, I picked Lola up to bring her to our home, which was in Savannah, Georgia at the time. She was eight pounds and six weeks old. Being first time pet parents, we adjusted quickly to our puppy’s needs and enjoyed taking her to dog parks, trails, outdoor concerts, and even to pet-friendly restaurants with outdoor seating. Lola demonstrated a sweet, loving, and conscientious temperament, even as a puppy and I knew she’d be the perfect Therapy Dog.
After a move to Nashville, Tennessee, we completed training as a pet therapy team with a group there called Pet Partners. Lola had just turned two years old when she took her certification test. We actually failed the first exam because she wanted to play with another dog who was also there for testing and she missed my commands for a portion of the test. Here I was stressing about passing the evaluation and she was bouncing around like a bunny rabbit, trying to engage a very uninterested (and focused-on-passing) pit bull. After the second attempt, we passed and she started to come to work with me at a community mental health agency I was working for at that time.
Lola was by far the favorite clinical team member, where ever we’ve worked together. In fact, some of my clients would go to the reception desk to ask for a “follow up appointment with Lola.” I enjoyed witnessing her work with clients; she could reach them in ways I never could. There was a young boy who was non-verbal who came to see her. His therapy consisted of learning to trust again, as the people in his life had hurt him so badly. Lola facilitated his ability to begin to trust again, first with her, and finally with me over the course of our work together. There was a preteen who shared about her abuse history while sitting on my office couch, as Lola lay next to her. She pet Lola while she shared for the first time about her trauma history. Lola served as a grounding and comforting presence for her. Lola was present for a family who was working through very difficult life transitions. She disarmed anger and resentment in the room for them, which allowed space for problem solving. For an adult trauma survivor, Lola was a calm and present witness to that client’s grief and the hard work she put in to complete trauma treatment and come out stronger on the other side. One child’s family sought me out for therapy specifically to overcome the child’s intense fear of dogs – that little girl went from not being able to see Lola from across the counseling center’s waiting room without fearfully climbing her mother in panic to learning how to approach Lola, petting Lola, and finally overcoming her animal-related panic; eventually the family adopted their own dog once the child had overcome her fear altogether.
I could not have counted the amount of times parents have contacted me and said something along the lines of “my teenager hates counseling, but they love animals, so I think we’ll give you and Lola a shot.” Overwhelmingly, once Lola met the child and connected with them, they returned and received services because of her presence in the room. Her special ability to engage people who aren’t sure how to trust others or aren’t even sure if they want to trust others is truly remarkable. With this experience, I’ve regularly encouraged other clinicians in the field to consider completing training with a therapy animal. In fact, when I expanded Creative Family Counseling to a group practice in 2019, I hoped team members would indeed do this. It brings me great joy that Lola now has 3 other four-legged team members on our clinical staff: Archer, Nugget, and Mak.
As a Great Dane, Lola’s age of 10 years old is quite old. When the pandemic started, Lola had to discontinue her in person work at the office. (It’s not easy to disinfect a dog between sessions!) Throughout 2020 she started experiencing some health issues, which have kept her from being able to return to the office. It’s been almost two years since she has worked in office, although she does at times make some on-screen appearances for telehealth appointments. She is mostly enjoying her days laying around, going for walks, going outside to bark at neighbors, eating
my children’s crumbs off the floor, and having doggy play-dates (lay-around-together-because-we-are-too-tired-to-play-dates) with a couple of her old buddies. Over six years, Lola logged more than 4000 therapy hours, so I suppose she has more than earned her *Official Retirement.*
In many ways, Lola is truly one of Creative Family Counseling’s Founders. She paved the way and created a space that her new team mates will continue to live into, spreading the joy and magical healing of an animal’s love and comfort. She has changed not only my world, but many people’s worlds – what an incredible life of service of Creative Family Counseling’s first Therapy Dog.
***To learn more about becoming a certified pet therapy team, visit Pawsibilities Unleashed, here.