Following a Dream: Animal-Assisted Therapy

The Beginnings of a Counsellor:
My burning desire when I entered the field of counselling was to be of service to people who felt stuck. The first job I had in the counselling field, when I was fresh out of university, was for an employment counselling agency. My role was to work with clients who were unemployed, and assist them in securing employment. Sounds straightforward enough, right? What I actually discovered very quickly was that my clients were without work for very significant reasons: depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety, to name a few. Many of my clients had immigrated to Canada from countries in war, extreme poverty, and chaos. These folks had witnessed and lived through horrors and tragedies beyond description. It didn’t feel right to keep the focus on work-related goals when their emotional life was in need of nurturing. It also didn’t feel right to refer them to someone else after they had already been bounced around to so many workers. But ethically, I didn’t have the skills to provide mental health counselling. An undergraduate degree in psychology doesn’t fully equip a person with the necessary skills to be a Counsellor. While I had a very good work relationship with my employer, she was constantly reminding me to keep my focus with clients on work-related goals, and to refer them out for everything else. Needless to say, employment counselling wasn’t the profession for me! I applied to the University of Calgary and after 3 brilliant-laborious-inspiring years I graduated with a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology.

It’s hard to talk about the tough stuff!
It is so much easier to talk about the things that make us feel comfortable, to stay within our comfort zone and not push the limits of our window of tolerance. Suppression and denial can become habits and if we stay disconnected from our strong emotions for too long, eventually we start to fear having emotions. But connecting with emotions (in titrated ways) and pushing the limits of our comfort zone is exactly how healing, insight and awareness, and change start to happen.

My next burning desire as a Counsellor was to make it not so 12188172_10156137948155142_6567896615004368019_odamn hard for people to connect with the tough
stuff. I love animals, and animals have always been a source of comfort for me during difficult times. Perhaps an animal in the counselling room would be comforting to clients. Over the years that followed, I researched and learned about animal-assisted therapy, eventually concluding that a service dog would be the route to follow.

Enter 2015: the year of the dog
Okay, not really. In the Chinese zodiac it was actually the year of the sheep. But in my family, it was the year of the dog. I had decided on a breed and a trainer, and flew all the way across Canada to adopt Maven, a Shiloh Shepherd.

The adorable fluff-ball… with razor sharp teeth!
Maven was a super cute rambunctious ball of fluffy fur. But looks can be deceiving! At 3 months old, Maven nipped excessively, jumped up, and defecated in the house. Everyone wanted to cuddle her but no one dared get too close! I am FullSizeRenderpleased to say that by 4 months, Maven had settled down and was no longer nipping (and was successfully doing ‘her business’ outside). By 6 months, I began working with 2 fantastic trainers: Cheri Kolstad, a service dog trainer based out of Penticton, and Vernon’s own The Crate Escape obedience dog trainer Vanessa.

When Maven was 1 year old, I began taking her to work with me. While she was largely still in training, it was amazing how transformative sessions became with her present.

Training is still on-going, but at least 2 days a week Maven joins me at work. Having a dog in session isn’t for everyone, and I always ask a client’s permissions prior to bringing Maven in.

Stay posted for more details about Maven’s training, and about her (eventual) crisis dog testing.

 

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Creative Approaches for Children: ‘Live Calm Kids’ Group

“Do children’s groups really work? Do they actually engage in the process?”

Yesterday I was promoting a children’s group that I am co-facilitating (Live Calm Kids), and these are the questions someone asked me. They are great questions, and I really enjoyed our conversation. I thought it would be a helpful topic to write about – because many others might be wondering the same questions!

I believe that all therapy is designed to help us grow emotionally and move toward solutions to the difficulties we experience. There are so many benefits to group counselling, especially for children. The group therapy experience is unique because aside from the skilled facilitators, participants are within their peer group. The group itself becomes a powerful vehicle for change because so much of our learning comes from our social interactions.

“We human beings are social beings” (Dalai Lama)

When a group environment is positive and well facilitated, the universal needs for belonging, acceptance, and approval can be met, which foster resiliency in children. Experiencing a sense of “fitting in” can be difficult for those struggling with anxiety – a counselling group can be a powerful place for them to feel accepted and valued. A sense of belonging comes to replace their feelings of isolation and separateness.

children_waterfrontWhen children are struggling with anxiety, they often feel as though something is wrong with them. Because of this, bringing together a group of children with similar difficulties is powerful. Together they discuss emotions, learn about their reactions, and practice coping skills within a supportive group setting; with the subtle underpinning that they are not alone in their experience. Being around others with similar difficulties helps kids to feel understood, a powerful antidote to the sense of being different from others.

In a counselling group, children have the ability to watch others learn coping behaviours and hear their stories of success. This instills hope and inspiration as they become encouraged by their peers’ positive experiences.

We are social beings, and as such much of our self-esteem is development via feedback and reflection from others. Group counselling provides children with opportunities to improve their ability to relate to others through discussions, art, movement, and playful techniques.

And we can’t forget the power of modeling when it comes to learning! The group facilitators have an important role in modeling active listening, providing non-judgmental feedback, and offering support. Over the course of the group, children start to pick up on these behaviours and incorporate them. And by doing so, they being to receive increasingly positive feedback from others, which serves to enhance their self-esteem and emotional growth.

The course of therapy and healing will be unique for everyone; group therapy can establish the foundations necessary to reduce stress-related symptoms and lead to positive changes. Please contact me if you would like to learn more about the group Live Calm Kids.

LiveCalmKids


Resources:

Paul Kymissis & David Halperin (ed), Group Therapy with Children and Adolescents
Cathy Malchiodi, Creative Interventions with Traumatized Children
Irvin Yalom, The Theory and Practice of Group Therapy