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Working with animals to help people
  1. Gill Pearce

Abstract

Gill Pearce was a veterinary nurse for nearly 40 years before she retrained as a therapeutic counsellor. She now works with her dog Megan (pictured), helping to reduce offending behaviour in young people

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SIX years ago I made a career change from veterinary nursing to train to become a therapeutic counsellor and work with young people. As head nurse, I had always believed that many clients would benefit from bereavement counselling. I also felt that veterinary staff would welcome more support, as well as gaining a greater understanding of euthanasia and the grieving process.

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At the time, the Blue Cross hadn't yet started its pet bereavement support service, so I initially trained as a bereavement counsellor with Cruse, an organisation that offers support to bereaved people. This led to further counselling courses, until I achieved the advanced diploma in therapeutic counselling. I am now an accredited counsellor.

I began working with the White Gold initiative, a police project in Cornwall that aims to reduce offending behaviour in young people. Most of the young people I work with are prolific offenders, often disadvantaged, frequently unhappy and/or abused, and very challenging, but usually amazing and interesting.

To further my interest in animal-assisted therapy and the human-animal bond, I attended a Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) conference and started to explore the possibilities of animal-assisted intervention. I began to recognise the potential of using dogs and other animals in my therapeutic practice.

Connecting with nature

For some time I have become increasingly interested in the biophilia hypothesis. This relates to man's affinity with nature, and has come from recent research that links exposure to natural environments with improved mental and physical health. There is now overwhelming evidence to support the fact that ‘nature makes us feel good’, and this is too often taken for granted.

At the same time, I also noticed that some clients prefer to walk while they talk, as they find therapy rooms restrictive. Having an animal alongside adds to the benefits.

Benefits of animal-assisted therapy

The goal of animal-assisted therapy is to improve a patient's social, emotional or cognitive functioning. Animals can help because they can make people feel safe and loved when they have been deprived of social interaction or hurt by other people. Animals do not communicate with words, and so some patients who are afraid of approaching people can comfortably approach an animal. The advantages of having an animal ‘co-therapist’ are numerous. Some of the advantages that I have experienced are:

▪The animal relieves some of the tension and anxiety of therapy;

▪Interacting with an animal is entertaining and fun;

▪Talking to the animal while the therapist listens is sometimes easier than talking to the therapist;

▪The animal may help a client to recognise their own feelings;

▪Working with animals can improve self-esteem, by being presented with opportunities to succeed and feel important.

Also, animals can:

▪Help clients to focus on an issue;

▪Help develop empathy;

▪Improve socialisation and communication;

▪Brighten the mood and lessen depression;

▪Provide pleasure and affection;

▪Help address grieving and loss issues;

▪Increase concentration and attention;

▪Decrease manipulative behaviour;

▪Improve expression of feelings;

▪Reduce general anxiety;

▪Improve an ability to trust;

▪Teach appropriate touch.

Why Megan?

After a lot of research and anticipation, I found Megan, who was training to be a guide dog. The puppies are carefully bred from approved breeders, and have reliable, calm temperaments. Megan was such a puppy and, having been placed with her puppy walker, she had received excellent basic training and been well socialised. From an early age, she had been carefully introduced to numerous experiences, venues and situations, and grew to be calm and accepting of them all. At the same time, she was encouraged to observe, and, when approached, engage politely with members of the public. However, it was discovered that she had aortic stenosis, and as it was felt that a blind owner might not know whether she had swallowed her tablet, it was felt impractical to continue her training.

Megan gives an important message to the young people we work with: just because you can't walk your chosen path, it doesn't mean you have to give up altogether. There are other alternatives in life.

Megan is health and temperament checked regularly by a veterinary surgeon and a specially trained assessor, and is regularly treated against fleas and worms. She is now also a qualified ‘Pets As Therapy’ (PAT) dog (www.petsastherapy.org).

I am always with Megan; she is never left alone with a client. I make sure that she has regular ‘down time’ and breaks. Sometimes she has to work hard to engage a young person, and has a much-needed rest in the office or car. We work in a number of ways with selected young people. Sometimes it's as simple as going for a walk, where I find the young person often relaxes more and can discuss their issues in greater depth.

I use her in one-to-one sessions, where she instinctively knows whether to lie quietly or to lean on the young person! Young people find her comforting and an often much-missed familiar presence.

Megan enjoys some ‘down time’

Experience and training

If you are interested in becoming involved in animal-assisted interventions, it is essential to be properly trained. It's not as simple as taking your pet dog to work. To use an animal in therapeutic practice, it's desirable that the handler is a qualified therapeutic counsellor.

SCAS has developed excellent training courses in a number of areas, including pet bereavement; providing pet loss support in veterinary practice; practical training for therapy dogs; an introduction to animal-assisted intervention; and companion animal interventions in therapeutic practice. More information is available at www.scas.org.uk.

What my clients say

My young clients generally say they find Megan's presence calming and helpful. Some say they feel that she ‘normalises’ meetings. Others find that she reminds them of particular people, pets, times or events. They learn an enormous amount by watching her behaviour and body language, and frequently apply it to themselves. She encourages contact, conversation and a change in outlook and behaviour, which can't be bad.

Kayleigh's story

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This young person has given permission for her photograph and statement to be included. This is what she says:

‘My name is Kayleigh, and I'm 16 years old. When I met Gill I was in trouble with the police and she helped me with bereavement issues. At the time, I had no real direction or knowledge of what I wanted to do in the future, and Gill inspired me to help other children and young people with issues. When we go out with Megan and take her for a walk in the woods I feel free to talk about anything and feel at ease. I enjoy being with Megan, she's cool! She's friendly and everyone loves her. She reminds me of when I was little and when I used to run around with my dog. It's just nice to be there with Megan and Gill and to feel relaxed. It's those days that I look forward to – being out and feeling free to be myself. They are both good companions and, whereas in the past I have had trust issues, I have now found this through this friendship, which has given me some stability.’

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