It is a well-documented fact that animals are therapeutic. For years programs have existed that bring together the elderly in nursing homes or home-bound situations with dogs and the end result is a calmer, happier patient. Many different types of therapy programs have begun expanding from traditional interventions to include modalities such as equine therapy.
In the field of substance abuse treatment, animal-assisted therapy has proven extremely useful. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the mental health field, I have always felt passionate about providing quality treatment from those suffering from both mental illness as well as substance abuse disorders. One way of providing quality treatment is to "think outside the box" and expose the clients to an array of treatment experiences. I also happen to love dogs, so in 2001, I set about training with my border collie/chow rescue dog in order to get her certified to provide this type of treatment.
With a little luck and a lot of hard work on our parts, Cobi passed the exam (based on the Canine Good Citizens Test on the first try and we began work at a halfway house for dually-diagnosed (mental illness/substance abuse) individuals. Cobi and the clients got along famously. The treatment experience lasted for 8 weeks and on the first session of each 8 weeks; each client got paired up with his or her very own therapy dog for the remainder of the sessions. Each week Cobi and I would work with our client for 45 minutes, focusing each week on learning a command to give the dog. The last 15 minutes of each session was spent demonstrating the client's success with the dog to the group. We closed each session with a bit of processing during which the client got a chance to discuss successes as well as frustrations or things that were difficult such as the dog got distracted, didn't listen to the client and only took direction from its owner. Across the 8 weeks I could see amazing transformations in these clients as they became engaged with Cobi. Some clients were initially quiet and withdrawn, or in some cases fearful of the dogs but over the 8 weeks the clients were able to lower their anxieties and build their confidence as their identity as a handler grew. The last session of the 8 weeks ended in a "graduation" ceremony in which clients were able to invite friends and family to watch as they demonstrated all of their skills handling the dogs. This provided the clients with the sense of accomplishment and provided them the confidence to move forward in other aspects of their treatment.
The experience was so amazing and so rewarding that I was eager to get my new dog Grace, a Belgian Sheepdog certified. In 2005 I began working with both Grace and Cobi at the halfway house as well as a residential treatment program for substance abuse in Chicago. Although much has been written on the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, I am certain of it, and incredibly grateful for my experiences witnessing these incredible changes people can make when engaged with an animal as part of their treatment experience.
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