Posted by: counselorcarmella | August 2, 2012

Maggie In The Counseling Room

I know there are plenty of studies about the positive  benefits of interacting with an animal.  These are physical (lower blood pressure, more activity), emotional (feeling less alone and  petting an animal can distract and help a person calm down.  Its also good to have something  to be responsible for), and social (meeting people while taking a dog out for walks, etc). I think the technical term used these days is “animal assisted therapy” or “animal facilitated therapy.” I’m sure there are folks with private practices who take their dogs with them  for the purposes of  the positive interactions clients have with the animal.

Personally, I am legally blind and have a seeing eye dog that goes to work with me. Her primary job is to assist me, of course, and there are times when I have her do this at work. She is generally out of her harness and “not working” in my office, though. When she doesn’t have her harness on, clients  can interact with her. She is very social and I consider her a very unique part of what I can offer the people who come to see me. She  greets them with wagging tail and  a happy demeanor and  brings a lot of smiles and laughter. Very few people who come to our office are afraid or don’t like dogs
and most  seem thrilled to have one in the counseling room. I think she helps people feel more comfortable and she serves as an ice breaker and rapport builder as many of them  will say something like, “You smell my dog on me, don’t you?” and I can ask them about their dog, etc., We can talk dogs for a couple minutes before getting down to the business of  the intake.

With returning clients, I’ll say, “Maggie, Kate’s here!” or whatever and she’ll act like she’s been waiting all week just to see that client. Of course, I know she’s happy to see whoever, but she does get to know those who come in regularly and does actually have her favorites. I can tell by her level of enthusiasm.  She really does  make clients feel special and   they seem to  look forward to seeing her, too. Some of my clients can’t have pets where they live so getting to interact with Maggie meets that “hug a puppy” need for them. Some clients make their moment with her a priority before we  start talking.  

She tends to remove herself somewhat from the “human drama”  portion of the hour by crawling  under an end table or laying down behind my chair. Sometimes, though, if a client is crying or seems very sad or distressed,  she’ll  take the initiative to go over to them and sit by them, lay by their feet,  or nuzzle their hand, etc. I don’t always allow her to if I think the client really needs to feel what they’re feeling without distraction, but at other times, it’s very appropriate  and very comforting to the client. She can  be a great tension defuser if  I’m working with a couple or family. For example, she usually lays down and goes to sleep once  she’s said  hello to the client. It never fails that she’ll snore or let out a long sigh at a therapeutically appropriate moment that either seems very empathetic or breaks the tension and makes everyone laugh for a second.

Sometimes, she does things I can’t do, reaches clients on a different level with her quiet acceptance of them. I think this is the trick with the children who read to dogs out loud to strengthen their skills. The dog is a receptive and nonjudgmental audience. One time, I had a client come in very stressed. She had some physical health problems as well as family and financial troubles and you name it. She’d said on the way from  the lobby to my office that she was having a bad day. When we got to my office, Maggie grabbbed one of her toys and started jumping around with it, being silly and wanting attention.  She does this from time to time at the beginning of a session. I’ll let the client play with her for a minute and then have her settle down if she doesn’t do it on her own  in a minute or two.

I’m not sure what it was about her  behavior this  day. I think the client just needed a release. Something Maggie  did made her start laughing and she just sat there and laughed and laughed at Maggie jumping around and being silly.  Maybe Maggie knew on some level what was needed. She laughed until she  cried. It was almost semi hysterical, but I think she just really needed  a physiological release for the stress she  was under and Maggie enabled that. We all know how healing laughter can be. I just sat there and let it happen. I knew  Maggie was doing something for the client that I couldn’t do.  I thought, “Well, if nothing else happens this whole hour, she’s gotten something  so beneficial from this session and it’s something I couldn’t have done myself.” It was really a beautiful moment and one of my favorites as far as thinking about Maggie with clients. I feel sure that any therapist who has a dog in their office  can share similar stories and examples as these.
Maggie’s training is not as a therapy dog, of course,  but her training did include being friendly and  calm and obedient  the same way and she was also taught to adapt to various situations the way emotional support animals are  trained. I sometimes jokingly call her my co therapist. She definitely has the client centered thingd down and  I really do love being able to share her appropriately with clients. What she does for me as a guide is special enough, but how she is with other people is very special to observe, too. I’m really proud of her for all she does.
I should also note that our bond is a very solid one so that I never worry that she would become  less attached to me  as her primary person in any way. With a new guide, there would be less interactions with clients or anyone else while the bond to the handler is still forming. Maggie  had been with me several years when we started working with clients. I experimented with different scenarios, trying to figure out how much to let her interact and making sure  she wasn’t beginning to  ignore commands from me or  become a distraction. I paid attention to her reactions to make sure her guide work didn’t seem impacted and to make sure  interacting with clients didn’t seem to be causing her any stress.  I wondered if she might kind of “soak up” the emotions expressed in my office, but she hasn’t seemed to have that problem.  She greets, she sleeps,  she says goodbye if she’s awake when the client leaves. She is 15 now and our attachment is very solid. I would never allow anything to undermine her guide work, as that is her purpose for being with me.
Some people who are blind and work as therapists don’t allow their dogs to interact with clients. This is an individual choice, of course, and can also depend on  the personality of the dog. The vast
majority of guide dog handlers follow our training, which is to never allow others to interact with the dog  when they are in harness so they know work time vs play time and so they can focus on what they’re supposed to be doing. Interactions are  only allowed when out of harness and when the handler says it’s okay.

In our case, having Maggie involved out of harness in sessions has been very natural and has worked out very well.  I’m thankful to have her beside me, helping clients feel comfortable and accepted, adding some normalcy and humor, and  being her usual loving self.  That doesn’t begin to address the positives for my colleagues who enjoy moments with her or the fans she has who are clients of other counselors at Crossroads.  This is just another among so  many ways Maggie is a blessing to me and to others.  She’s such a special girl. 


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