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Four Legged Therapists

'Sam' is small for his eight years. His parents described him as a good student, outgoing with lots of friends; that was, until he moved schools last year. Since then his grades have plummeted, no friends come round for supper anymore, and Sam rarely says a word; except to beg his Mom not to make him go to school each morning. Sam refuses to talk with the school counselor, his teacher, or with the play therapist his parents took him to see. Sam's parents are at their wit's end. They desperately want their son back, but Sam won't tell them what is wrong, and the only living being he seems to trust is Benji, his pet guinea pig. Seeing this connection, Sam's parents take him to a place they'd heard about through their church; a place where they help kids through animals.

This is where I meet Sam. I'm working with an Animal Assisted Therapy program in Arizona, and Sam is my newest client. Sam stands slightly behind his Dad, looking at the ground. He looks scared. I gently explain that there are lots of animals here who would really like to meet Sam, if he wants to. Sam nods tentatively. As we explore the farm and meet first with the smaller animals Sam starts to talk. First with the dogs and the goats and then, very quietly, he tells me that he has a guinea pig at home called Benji, and that Benji is his best friend. In our next session, Sam asks to see the horses. He notices Rosie, standing by herself. 'She looks lonely' says Sam, 'can we bring her in?' Once in the corral I show Sam how to do a 'join up' with Rosie. Sam spends time talking with Rosie and rubbing her, then gently asks her to move away from him. Through this process Rosie decides that Sam is someone to be trusted and respected, so when Sam walks around the corral Rosie follows. When Sam, with a gentle hand on her nose, asks Rosie to back away, she takes a few steps back. As he runs circles in the corral with Rosie trotting at his heel, Sam starts to laugh, and for the first time I see a glimmer of the boy his parents described: confident, happy, and in charge. Leading Rosie back to the field Sam looks me directly in the eye: "Rosie is so big and I'm so small, but she did what I asked her to do!" It is then that Sam starts to tell me about the kids at school, situations when he felt very small: the bullying. With Rosie's help, Sam's self confidence gradually returned, he talked to his parents and teacher, and together they found ways to address the bullying at their school.

Thousands of miles away in South Carolina, I meet 'Angie', court mandated to a high management residential facility, as her 'last chance' before jail. By the age of 14, Angie has been thrown out of three schools for a variety of behaviours including selling drugs and turning tricks in the schoolyard. At this group home they count and lock away knifes and forks after dinner, and night checks are every 15 minutes. But what makes this place really different is that it is also a farm. And the girls, who like Angie are all survivors of long-term sexual abuse, spend time with the resident dogs, cats, chickens, horses, and a donkey called Fluffanella. In this safe haven, Angie is able to learn to trust again; first she trusts the animals and then, with time, she starts to trust me and the other counselors. With the help of animals like Flufanella, Angie and the other girls here are gradually able to talk about the abuse they have experienced, find healthy ways to express their feelings, build relationship skills and prepare for a future with hope.

That was over three years ago. Sam is now back on track at school, Angie is doing well back in the community, and I'm back in Alberta. Similar to the programs described above, my goal is to draw upon the special bond that exists between animals and children, to help kids like Sam and Angie to heal. This goal is founded on a growing body of research, exploring the benefits of the human-animal bond. This research indicates many ways in which animals are good for our physical and emotional health, well-being and development. For example, having contact with animals can mean we have fewer trips to the doctor and lower blood pressure. Children who have contact with animals tend to have higher self esteem, and be more involved in activities such as sports, hobbies, or chores. They also tend to be more empathetic and nurturing towards both animals and people.

This bond can be particularly powerful when children face challenge, loss or change, and for children with special needs. At such times parents may seek the support of a member of the helping professions. It's not hard to see that incorporating interactions with animals into these professions can enhance a child's progress. The Delta Society, an organisation committed to exploring and enhancing human animal interactions, calls this Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), defined as: "goal directed intervention in which an animal … is an integral part of the treatment process… to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning". Sam and Angie were helped through a special form of AAT called 'Equine Facilitated Counselling' (EFMH). A growing number of programs and professionals are finding that AAT and EFMH can be effective with children, particularly when 'more traditional therapies' seem ineffective. Nationally recognized industry standards for EFMH are provided by EFMHA (Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association), a professional non-profit organization. Under EFMHA standards, EFMH is delivered by a credentialed mental health professional with additional training with horses and therapeutic riding instruction. Group work is delivered by a team, comprising a credentialed mental health professional and a therapeutic riding instructor, each with cross training.

Equally important members of the EFMH team are the specially selected and trained therapy horses and donkeys. My four legged 'co-counsellors' include Penny, a 21 year-old part arabian mare; Skye, a nine year-old part arabian gelding; Dubh a ten year old conemarra pony; Winnie, a three year-old donkey and her ten month old baby, Ceilidh. Each one has something very different to offer. Penny, for example, is wonderful with younger children, and always walks a bit steadier when she knows she has a small child on her back. Skye is very like Rosie in Arizona and loves to 'join up'. The donkeys are wonderful teachers of how we impact others in our lives. 'Mark', for example, is a young teenager with autism. At first Mark could not get near the donkeys. Naturally wary of people, the donkeys ran away from Mark as he marched after them purposefully with his hand held out in front, gripping the halter. But Mark was motivated, and with guidance and patience has learnt to approach the donkeys slowly and gentle. He has become aware of the donkey's feelings and of how his actions impact them; he has built a relationship with the donkeys based upon mutual trust and respect. He is now rewarded each week by Ceilidh running up to him to have her face rubbed. This is a new experience for Mark that we are working on transferring to his human relationships.

EFMH is not for everybody. EFMHA standards require careful screening to ensure physical and emotional safety for all involved; Parents need to know that the people and animals delivering the program are appropriately credentialed; And I firmly believe that EFMH is best delivered in consultation with and in support of existing approaches, rather than a stand-alone therapy. But the research and my experience all indicate that there are many children for whom doors could be opened, trust re-learnt, and relationships built through carefully designed and supervised interactions with the right therapy animal. It is my hope that more children like Mark, Sam and Angie can experience healing, hope and unconditional love through the gentle touch of a four-legged counsellor.

© Sue McIntosh, MA, CCC, 2001

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