Animal Assisted Therapy

Hi, I’m River!

I am a Petite Goldendoodle. I was born at Timshell Farm (timshellfarm.com) in Texas on August 22, 2011. I weigh 15 lbs. and hope to stay that way. Even in dogs, being overweight is neither cool nor healthy. I live at home with Dr. Forest (Doc), her husband, my brother Charlie and my favorite cat in the world, Ms. Maggie, a Siamese mix.

I traveled by plane from Texas to Los Angeles International Airport all by myself, in a special cargo of United Airlines. My master was waiting for me there. This is me, on my first drive to my new home, in the arms of Dr. Forest, my master.
I was seven weeks old. And it was love at first sight!

When I arrived at my new home, six months after Charlie was adopted by Doc, he was still fearful, trusting no one and defensive to the point of aggression. To my brother’s credit, he has never been aggressive with me. Or with Maggie, our Siamese mix sister. Only with people he had a problem. Maybe because ONLY people have hurt him. He could not tolerate people who did not have enough sense to approach a dog with proper civility and consideration. All we dogs need to learn how to put up with that eventually.

Charlie, my brother, is a gentle soul. A Spaniel-Dachshund mix, ten pounds bigger than me and a year older, Charlie is a ‘rescue.’ In the first nine months of his life he was terribly abused, which caused him to get post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

At Timshell Farm the emphasis is on producing companionship dogs. Steve and Linda Rogers selected my parents very carefully amongst the gentlest, smartest and friendliest representatives of their breed. Then, they took care that my siblings and I were surrounded by constant love and kindness from day one. They exposed us early on to children, cats, chickens and horses. But they did it ever so gently. My siblings and I never felt threatened or even scared, just adventurous. They really know what they were doing. So you see, I have all the advantages of a good genetic selection and a good upbringing. On top of that, I got to train with a talented professional dog trainer, Ms. Stacey, for a job that was already waiting for me: co-therapist in Doc’s psychiatric private practice.

Charlie was not so lucky, even though he is very handsome and has a good old soul. Born in a city shelter, passed around to different owners, he changed homes five times in his first nine months of life. He was too long in the company of people who messed with his head and abused his body. No wonder he could not trust people.

Charlie was the first being in emotional pain I encountered. My heart went out to him from day one. Doc and her husband kept promising him he would be surrounded by so much love in their home that he would have no other choice but to cope with the trauma and heal. They were true to their word, no matter how hard the struggle was.

Feeling my first pang of compassion, I assisted Doc wholeheartedly in healing Charlie. It didn’t take long before he become my beloved brother.

By November of 2011, when I joined the family, his rehabilitation was well under way. Even though I was younger than three months old when I arrived, I began my relationship with Charlie by showing him the utmost respect. I never stepped on his toes. I always let him eat first and make the first choice of toys. Then I took the habit of snuggling up to him when we slept together. I started playing with him in friendly chases around the house. I also gave him credit for the things he was good at. He is much better at catching toys than I.

He is also a better guard dog. Although afraid of people, Charlie can, if needed, firmly stand his ground in front of other dogs–big and menacing or small and yappy (Do you have any idea how annoying those are?). He makes me feel safe around him, even when Doc is not home.

Long story short, I did everything in my power to make him feel like a beloved older brother. Our trainer, Ms. Stacie Lemieux , helped out a lot too.

With painstaking effort, she managed to teach him that, if he lets go of a toy he possessively clenches in his mouth, he gets a treat, plus he gets the toy back. She showed him again and again that nothing bad would happen to him anymore if he became more trusting. You would not believe how difficult it was for Charlie to turn his head around and look at things this way. But eventually he did it.
Our trainer, Ms. Stacie Lemieux, used to work for PetSmart when we have first met her. But now she has her own dog training school and can be reached at staciesmannersplease@gmail.com or 310 613-9380.

Thanks to everybody’s efforts, he is now a much happier dog. He smiles a lot. Even in his sleep. We both enjoy doing everything together: taking naps, chase birds we never catch and make new friends in the neighborhood, be them people or dogs.

But in the end, Charlie was finally HOME, had a family that adored him and he was safe. A big rescue success story. Didn’t know it then, but Charlie was, technically, my first patient with my first successful outcome.

Just as Charlie overcame the sadness in his heart and found happiness again, so can people who have suffered injustice and abuse, emotional and physical.

I meet these people everyday through my work in Doc’s office. They feel so heavy, overwhelmed by sadness, seeing little or no hope for themselves. Fully aware that hope is the engine that will get them through the pain they must endure, I do my best to make them regain and hold on to that liberating hope, in my own way. Without false modesty, there are many ways a well trained, compassionate canine such as I, can convey this message.

And I gladly do it everyday.

Our patients may suffer from an episode of depression, or a panic attack, or are trying hard to cope with painful events in their lives, like losing a job, death of a parent, prolonged illness of a loved one, a painful divorce or break up… The causes my differ but the emotional pain is the same. So is the need for comfort.

Here are some aspects of my work with patients:

“I have an angel on my shoulder!”

“Sometimes I feel like standing in” for a patient, shielding him from pain.”

Here are some opinions from patients:

(Out of respect for their privacy and in accordance with the
HIPAA regulations, patients’ names are withheld.)

Patient 1

I was introduced to River approximately a year ago during one of my appointments with Dr. Forest. I was not in the best of mood that particular day, however, when Dr Forest opened the door and I met River for the first time it changed my whole mood for the rest of the session.
During that session, River showed me his tricks when I was sad and gave me high fives’ when I made a breakthrough. I felt a very strong sense that River was innately aware of my emotions as I discussed my feelings.

Since that time, I look forward to being greeted by River at the beginning of my appointments. During session I enjoy watching River as he lays down quietly or chews on a toy, only interrupting if you are in need of Kleenex or a cute trick on a really difficult day.

River is sweet, gentle, well mannered and extremely smart. Not only do I look forward to appointments with River, I try to book my appointments around his busy schedule.

Patient 2

“The presence of a Therapy Dog lowers my anxiety, and facilitates a comfortable and soothing environment in which my guard is lowered. When River is in the room, it is impossible not to relax. I feel less overwhelmed and find it much easier to open up when discussing the many components of my disabilities.”

Patient 3

“Dr. Forest’s canine colleague is a highly effective addition to her practice. A friendly dog is an instant “desensitizer.” River is not only a friendly dog, but he’s very intelligent, well trained and utterly adorable and affectionate. Almost by definition, dogs are soothing. They calm us by their complete acceptance. There are no pretensions with a dog like River. He “gets” you immediately and then makes an instant decision about your needs.

Whether he jumps in your lap, or wags his tail and hovers lovingly around you, you relax. It’s an automatic response. River is truly an extension of the therapeutic approach of Dr. Forest. She is compassionate, caring, accepting and non-judgmental. Dr. Forest demonstrates this by her demeanor and her words —– River demonstrates this by his actions.

I believe animals are natural therapists in the truest sense. They understand humans at a deep and primal level. Long before a therapist can get through to a patient, a dog can instinctively detect fear, aggression, anger and despair, as well as honesty and joy. A dog can also be a useful distraction when a patient is uncomfortable in the therapist’s office, and especially if the patient is nervous or frightened.

Dr. Forest has been extremely helpful in my own therapeutic journey. I greatly admire and respect her many gifts and her ability to be supportive and encouraging. She has helped me through many difficult moments in my life.

I always look forward to our appointments. I know I will leave feeling more positive and capable of coping. I trust them both completely. They are the perfect team.”

As far as my therapy-dog education is concerned, I have gone through all three levels of obedience education, from puppy school to advanced training. After graduation, I passed my Canine Good Citizen Exam in my first attempt. Now I am fully certified by the The American Kennel Club as a well-trained dog who knows how to behave in human society–a “Canine Good Citizen” Degree.
This is my diploma:

I went through every step of the training with Doc and our trainer, Ms. Stacie, at my side. I honestly don’t know who enjoyed the training more, she or I.

My official job title is that of ‘co-therapist’ and my work is alongside Doc (Dr. Forest by her formal title) in her busy psychiatric practice. I usually work Tuesdays and Thursdays but sometimes on other days too if we have an emergency or a special patient that badly needs my help.
At work, we are a great team, Doc and I, doing our very best for our patients. Much of my job involves being my friendly and compassionate self comforting people in distress. Sometimes, to relax the atmosphere, I also do some tricks. Doing my job comes easily and naturally to me. I would gladly do it anyway, even without the perks (lots of attention and love, and lots of new friends). I have an open invitation to visit any office on our floor. Once, Doc received an email from a potential new patient that said: “We haven’t yet met but I am a friend of River’s and I need your help.”

As I said, I love my job! How many PEOPLE can say the same about their jobs?

When I sense a patient is in distress, it is impossible for me to sit idle. I go and politely ask if it is OK for me to give them a hug.

Or I offer them one of my toys and invite them to play with me when they are sad. I like to see their smiles and how their faces brighten. Even if it is only for one minute.
I usually don’t give up snuggling with them until they smile and relax. When they relax and feel better, I go on my bed and mind my own business.

One time, I was called in during an emergency appointment with a patient who had some very bad things happening to her. She was sitting there, looking normal on the outside. Deeply wounded inside. She was in so much emotional pain she could not even talk about it. She looked at me with such sorrow. Then she reached out to me. In that brief moment, we completely understood each other. She desperately needed help, human help, but was too afraid and too ashamed to ask for it. I gave her comfort so she could reach past her fears and work with Doc, who was ready to help her, but was waiting for her to be ready for it.

I curled up in my patient’s lap while avoiding staring her in the eye. She hugged me tight, as if her life depended on it. From then on, when Doc asked her questions about the trauma, she whispered all the answers to me. She could not look humans in the eye. But she could look and relate to me.

When her story got most painful, I licked her hand in understanding, trying to reassure her that she would be all right. Under Doc’s guidance, I had complete faith that she would get through OK if she could only trust the process. When humans can talk about painful things that happened to them, the pain eases and the healing begins naturally. That’s why Doc kept trying to get her to talk about the awful things done to her.
Bit by bit she got better. She no longer choked up in sleep like she used to because of horrific nightmares. She stopped pushing her partner away and allowed herself to feel loved. She went back to work and is planning to return to college to finish her degree.

As if that weren’t enough, she rescued a very sweet female dog from the pound, and the two are now inseparable. In addition to my personal satisfaction of helping someone, unexpectedly, I was also rewarded with a new canine female friend whose company I happen to enjoy a lot. Win, win, win!

How am I able to help humans? We animals have feelings too. We experience fear, panic, loss, depression, like you do. And just like you, we relate to others using empathy and compassion. A UCLA cardiologist, Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, along with Kathryn Bowers, wrote a book called Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing. In this book, they talk about how closely related we are–humans and animals–in our anatomy, physiology, emotional well-being and also in the type of afflictions we can develop. That very close connection helps me understand and relate immediately and completely with people in pain. It is a very powerful (and often subconscious) inter-species bond.

It is because of this deep connection we have with each other, that my work is even possible.

Part of my work is also doing some of my tricks for the patients to help them relax, like ringing the bell for a treat or offering a tissue upon request then, after it’s used, taking it and deposit it in the trash.

Or I ring a bell for a treat:

I can feel beyond a doubt when the atmosphere in the room becomes heavy with sadness. It doesn’t take a dog-genius for that. This is when Doc calls on me to help the patient relax and lighten up. It is time for me to be really cute. I jump crazily up and down the sofa, retrieve things, and shake the beegeezeez out of one of my favorite toys–the orange monkey or the pink flamingo–depending on the audience. And I don’t let up until I hear laughter in the room.

To help patients learn how to set loving boundaries and better manage their relationships, Doc uses examples from my training practice. We used the Positive Reinforcement Method of training. Using this method, Doc never said ” No!” to me or yelled when I was not doing what she wanted me to do. She .would just patiently say “Try again!” and would give me a treat only when I got it right.

To warn me that my behavior was out of control she would never yell the infamous, “Bad dog!” She would, instead, politely but firmly say “Manners, River!” and I would know immediately I am out of line. This way, she corrects my behavior and teaches me a lot of stuff, but never breaks my spirit. It actually increases the bond of trust between us. It really works. You should try it sometime when people you know misbehave!
But what I personally enjoy the best is when patients bring their own dogs with them. Most of these dogs have been rescued and are part of the psychiatric intervention recommended. These dogs work as “service animals.” Doc gives them proper papers and all. They get to accompany their masters everywhere they go: planes, restaurants, museums, and all kinds of public places where dogs are not normally allowed. Even I, as a therapy dog, don’t have as many rights.

Not that I hold it against them. I would venture to say that theirs is a much harder job than mine. I get to go home and play with Charlie or relax in the garden under the trumpet tree while watching squirrels after work. But they are on call 24/7. What I am saying is they really deserve the special privileges granted to them.

Some of the service dogs coming in are very friendly with me. Some not so much. But in consideration of their work, I always let them drink from my water bowl and play with my toys while visiting.

I have heard that people often need less anti-anxiety medications and less sleeping pills when they get a service dog. And I am not surprised. The human-animal bond can be so strong!

I have a new favorite among the service dogs I know.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?

Incorporating the human-animal bond in a psychotherapy process is called Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). AAT is still experiential, but an increasingly large number of rigorous research studies are committed to explaining why and how humans are capable of developing such strong social inter-species bonds with animals, especially mammals.

What makes us “feel close” to an animal? What makes us think we can “understand” a being of a different species and can be understood by them? Can we really “know” their feelings? Can they sense ours?

A new area of research, Affective Neuroscience, studies “how emotional feelings are generated” in the brain. According to Jaak Panksepp, an authority in the field, all mammals, humans included, have in common the oldest structures of the brain–brainstem, amygdala and limbic system. These structures generate emotions and instincts that form the core of our “emotional being”: seeking, fear, rage, lust, care, panic and play (“The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice” 2011). Atop these oldest structures sits the neocortex– the “newest” evolutionary portion of the brain. This is where the “thinking” takes place, making the neocortex the core of our “cognitive being”–a quality unique to humans.

When we try to analyze our emotions rationally by using the neocortex with its logical approach, the emotional brain (amygdala, brain stem, limbic system) does not seem to respond; or if it does, it is in a restricted capacity. But when we try to get in touch with our emotions using intuition, empathy and creativity, our emotional being opens up. This is when changes in the emotional reaction can happen. And this is the reason most psychiatrists and psychotherapists are trying to help their patients to “get in touch” with themselves. Accessing the emotional brain gives people the proverbial “Aha!” moments of self-realization.

Working with a friendly and well-trained dog as co-therapist can facilitate a faster access to the emotional brain. This happens because dogs naturally live emotional and intuitive lives where there is no conflict between emotions and logic. Only the emotional brain is in action, free and unhindered, in all its kindness and openness. And this is what we humans resonate most profoundly and love the most about animals.

When interacting with friendly animals, we are automatically turning off our cognitive being, surrendering judgment, and “tuning in on their frequency” (Carol Gurney, “The Language of Animals” 2001). Instinctively, we start to speak their language. We can learn and practice tuning in by shutting off the neocortex at will and relating to animals, to others or to ourselves, solely at an emotional level. This is often called “getting in touch with our feelings.” It is also the basis of animal intuitive communication. The better we get at it, the closer relationships we can build with others and the more peaceful we can feel within ourselves. Creating a bond with animals can help us get in closer touch with ourselves.

There are other theories exploring other facets of the inter-species bond between us and animals. Petting a dog or a cat increases the production of a hormone called oxytocine in the brain. Oxytocine, among other functions, has an overall calming effect. It also increases the capacity for pleasure, empathy and trust essential for social attachment and healthy relationships. It reduces the blood pressure and inhibits the secretion of cortisol, “the stress hormone.” It facilitates memory and learning, especially learning social behavior. Oxytocine forms the biological basis of another bond of profound intensity present in all mammals: the bond between the mother and the offspring (Cynthia K. Chandler, “Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling” 2011). In the most primal biological way, we are all mammals.

Some of these hormonal and neurological phenomena subconsciously happen in my patients’ brains when they interact with River in my office. These are pictures showing these interactions. You can clearly see how the flow of affection goes both ways. The pictures are first time encounters. As in all the pictures shown here with my patients, their faces have been intentionally blurred to maintain privacy and confidentially.

“River, how did you know I needed a hug so badly today?”

learning, especially learning social behavior. Oxytocine forms the biological basis of another bond of profound intensity present in all mammals: the bond between the mother and the offspring (Cynthia K. Chandler, “Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling” 2011). In the most primal biological way, we are all mammals.

Some of these hormonal and neurological phenomena subconsciously happen in my patients’ brains when they interact with River in my office. These are pictures showing these interactions. You can clearly see how the flow of affection goes both ways. The pictures are first time encounters. As in all the pictures shown here with my patients, their faces have been intentionally blurred to maintain privacy and confidentially.

Psychiatrists and psychotherapists, who consider introducing AAT in their practices, need to take in consideration a few important factors:

  • Careful selection of a dog with instinctive compassion ability and high trainability
  • Judicious training with a professional trainer
  • Being open minded themselves, in order to allow the carefully selected and highly trained therapy animal to do his/her job, without the human therapist standing in the way of the natural process
  • As there is little formal training in this field yet, going to seminars and open forum discussions to share one’s expertise and learn from others becomes the most important way to learn about AAT; e.g. Linkedin forum

If you need to come and see Dr. Forest and me, I am taking appointments!!!