Annemarie uses a therapy dog, a beautiful, well natured labrador who greeted us with slobbery hellos and friendliness, before smelling us, and taking a liking to my chair - to which he jumped on before falling asleep behind me. 'Balou' - the huge sleeping puppy behind me sits in the office daily, contributing to an animal assisted approach to psychotherapy.
Annemarie explains that sometimes Balou sits quietly with little client interaction, and other times he plays a role in gaining trust between child and therapist, as well as acting as a bridge of communication. Annemarie showed us some videos of how mindfulness techniques can be used with Balou and children within therapy - "Can you feel Balou's heart rate? Can you feel your heart rate?"; "Where is the softest of Balou's fur?"; "Can we be quiet with Balou and notice what he smells like, what he feels like, what he sounds like?" She showed us how having Balou in the room can provide her with a conversation starter and relationship builder with her clients. Many clients keep coming back just to check in on Balou and see how he is going!
ANDAAT - the Australian network for the development of animal assisted therapies provides useful definitions of therapy animals or assisted animal therapy and highlights the importance of client and therapist collaborating on a specific therapeutic goal, and using the animal as a tool - rather than the dominant resource of psychotherapy - hence the term animal assisted therapy and not animal therapy.
A number of studies have linked animal assisted therapies to reductions in anxiety and depression, decreases in loneliness in the elderly, facilitating an inviting environment for psychotherapy to take place and an increase in the relationship between client and therapist.
Both Annemarie and Balou taught us why it is that animals can have a therapeutic value - Balou provides a kind of unconditional positive regard - something that clients are drawn to. This regard is something that we as therapists approach our work with. However, it can be harder to convey and for clients to perceive. We ended our discussion with Annemarie by inviting her along to speak at next years National AABAT Forum held next year in Adelaide.
We're excited to continue learning more about animal assisted therapy and hope to one day incorporate it into our own approach at True North Expeditions.