Dog As Co-Therapist in Eating Disorder Recovery



Winston, my terrier/corgi friend, has been my co-therapist for about nine years. What makes him so good at it? He's a presence in my garden waiting room and a tender, playful and often loving companion for my clients as they wait among the flowers for their appointment with me. On occasion he's been essential during an emergency night time emotional crisis where my client may sit on the floor stroking him, feeling him accept her regardless of what she feels, feeling his trust in her as we talk and as she regains her trust in herself.

This morning I saw this article running in the Psychiatric Times, Are Dogs Man's Best Therapist? by H. Steven Moffic, MD.

Dr. Moffic says he doesn't like dogs and is amazed to discover they can create healing relationships with people whose emotional difficulties strain the skill of trained professionals like autistic children and war veterans with PTSD.  To his credit he gives moving examples that are showing him that dogs can help people heal from emotional wounding.

Looking objectively (as if I could) at this power dogs have to be therapists, I am comparing and evaluating the background and psychological approach between Winston and myself.

My background:

I've been in private practice since 1981. That means, many years of school, internships, clinical supervision, continuing education, private study, life experiences, conscientious and long term healing work, and ongoing lessons from my clients' lives. I've had deprivation in my childhood, a several decades long journey with bulimia, a disposition that got me up every time I fell down, and now am recovered and live a good and fulfilling life of love, play and productivity.

Winston's background:

Unknown first four years: conjecture from limited knowledge: born in a poor and violent section of Los Angeles, starved to the point of being almost hairless, afraid of hoses indicating some kind of trauma or abuse, screams of anguish from sudden attacks of extreme pain throughout the day discovered to be caused by lack of cartilage between his bones due to nutritional deprivation.  Despite this he had and still has a sunny disposition and an eagerness to face new challenges with his head and tail held high.  He's had conscientious and long term healing work, new friends, various and continuous jobs (keep rats, mice, racoons and possums out of the garden, announce visitors, warn would be trespassers, watch over children).  Now he's recovered and lives a good a fulfilling life of love, play and productivity.

As a therapist, I listen, talk and use my professional and life learning skills. I care about the people I work with, often love them, always respect them and honor the healing wisdom I know resides in all of us.

As a co-therapist Winston listens with his heart and doesn't talk. He uses his life learning skills.  He is present for what is in himself, his environment and in people. (I think all dogs may be Buddhists in that way.) He clearly demonstrates a caring toward clients that has a range of simple tolerance to playful companionship, to strong liking, to deep affection.

He and I are both loyal to our clients. I, because of professional commitment and personal caring. He, because anyone accepted here becomes part of his "pack." Maybe that too is professional commitment and personal caring.

I don't have body contact with my clients. 

Winston asks for caresses, lays on his back for long belly rubs, rests his head on a person's leg with a comfortable sigh, lies at a person's feet with a paw or nose on a human foot. He teaches clients to communicate, in safety, through physical touch.

A lonely or isolated client likes Winston's happy greeting. An insecure client feels comfortable with him because he never postures and only relates from the truth of his experience.  If he wants to be with her then she is worth being with. Winston doesn't pretend. He can pick up quickly on a client's emotional state and join her there as a comfort or a playmate or a patient quiet presence that accepts her as she is.  He'll run away if he gets hurt by treatment that is too rough or harsh. That shows the client she's got something going on that needs attention because Winston doesn't judge.

Winston and I love each other and live with each other contributing to each other's lives in different ways based on our skill sets and nature.  I take care of him the way only a human can care for a dog in Los Angeles.  He takes care of me the way only a dog can care for a human in Los Angeles.  Our clients know this.  They are in the presence of love, respect, sharing, balance and care. And they know that at times either Winston or I need to be brave and strong to stand up for the other. It must come through that we will stand up for them too.

Mmmm.  Winston and I provide similar and different services to our shared clients.

P.S. Sometimes I suggest to a client, especially if she is isolated and sad, that she consider volunteering at an animal shelter or rescue setting where she can walk the dogs waiting to be adopted. It's been beneficial for everyone involved.


What similarities and differences do you see betwen Winston's work and mine?

Has a dog or any animal helped you in your recovery?

What insight have you gained from your relationship with an animal?

Have you learned how to be a better human from a non human? :)



Pet Therapy: How Animals And Humans Heal Each Other

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Pet Therapy: How Animals And Humans Heal Each Other







0 # I know there is so much more to take fromylifex2 2012-03-05 20:38
I know there is so much more to take from this blog, but let me share with you what hit me first. I have been on this sugar craze for weeks...night eating is my hardest time for this. I was sitting here going thru my emails, connecting with friends on facebook, and searching the internet for ways to stop wanting to eat sugar...then I came here to check in for the night. After reading your blog, somehow my craving diminished...I am looking through to see what about it hit me in that manner, to lessen a craving that I was just about ready to get up and "satisfy".
I think it took a while to read :-), so perhaps the craving just passed. Seriously, however, I really feel your connection to what you do...your passion is genuine,as is your committment to those of us you have never met and may never meet. (although I would love to meet you some day!)
Most of us here, or maybe I should just speak for myself, have very deep trust issues. I have a great therapist and I imagine that your clients must know what a special gift they have in you. I think I found it spiritually nourishing to read how you care for your clients, and for Winston.
I recently took in a kitten that had been a stray and taken in by a friend for several months. When my friend found her (and her 2 siblings), my kitty had a fish hook caught in the corner of her mouth. She was very scared, in pain, and very hard to catch. She still has an opening in the side of her mouth where the hook pulled.
When she came to stay with me, she wouldn't eat. I had to feed her by hand and force fluids. Finally, I had to decide to place her in a small, comfortable, non-threatening room with food and water and just let her be. I had to trust that she would take it upon herself to listen to her body's needs to accept the nourishment that was offered. I used this time to gently talk with her and use a soothing tone as I entered the room to gather a belonging or put something away. Slowly, she has begun to trust me. Only me. She runs from my children, and gets very shaky when I am holding her and they are near. But when it is just the two of us, she is letting down her guard, coming to find my hand, to stroke, cuddle and comfort. I love watching her flip over on her back "asking" me to rub her tummy. I find this time of night just as calming for me. There are parallels to her trust levels and mine. I too, have a very small radius of genuine trust. Right now, I too, am taking baby steps toward a more fulfilling and complete life. I too, am nourishing my body by choosing to eat what is before me. I too, still like to retreat into my own ED world, coming out when I garner courage, sometimes running back when I feel unsafe. But gradually, the courage is trumping the fear. I think we are doing a lot of good for each other. Great blog!
0 # Oh, Tracy. What a rich and beautiful stopinkjoanna 2012-03-05 22:14
Oh, Tracy. What a rich and beautiful story. Your kitty is healing and so are you in this relationship.

She is showing you through her trust in you that you are trustworthy. I love it. As you earn her trust you learn to trust yourself more.

Do your children want to connect with kitty? Usually children reach for or chase a cat. The children want to relate and don't realize they are frightening the animal.

It can be quite wonderful to teach children that if they sit still the kitty can learn to come to them. Excited children are not attractive to kitties.

But children who can sit still, be quiet and gentle will attract a cat to their side or even to their lap.

Yes, I agree. There are many layers to these stories.

Thank you, again for writing Tracy. I'm so glad to be part of your recovery journey.
0 # I want to take my cats to therapy with mPTC 2012-03-12 11:34
I want to take my cats to therapy with me. :-) Sometimes when I do a phone sesh from my place I'll sit with them, or one will lay down on my stomach.
0 # Reading that petting a cat or dog can repinkjoanna 2012-03-12 23:24
Reading that petting a cat or dog can reduce your blood pressure doesn't begin to describe the experience. The calm, the trust, the snuggle and purr feels so cozy and sweet that you can relax with your friend and stay present for what is going on in your conversation.

Before I had dogs my cats were allowed in my consulting room. So many times a little sable Burmese named Kuan Yin would curl in a patient's lap during our work. The patient relaxed, stroked the silken body rumbling with a low purr and engage in our work with more peace and trust.

Sometimes a patient would be too sensitive for even that kind of contact and Kuan Yin would know. She would lie on the couch near the patient so the woman would reach out to touch that sable girl. Kuan Yin always knew when it was important for the human to make the first move and when she should stroll into someone's lap. And she knew when to stay away.

The dogs are great co-therapists too, but usually in the garden waiting room, not in the consulting room.

Cats are more intimate souls who can be in the deeps with you. It's so nice you have them.

As for taking them with you to therapy .... we both know cats don't travel well. They like their home turf. :-)
0 # They definitely don't travel well and woPTC 2012-03-13 04:59
They definitely don't travel well and would completely freak out if I took them onto the NYC streets.

I would love if I had a cat curled in my lap while trying to talk. Meow...purr.
Julie Greene
0 # I am glad I found this site and have beeJulie Greene 2012-05-15 04:16
I am glad I found this site and have been reading HHH and various articles at random. This one caught my eye. It seems like I am alive because of Puzzle, but maybe that's a dumb thing to say.

I am scared that someday I might be too sick to care for her.

Or I have this vague fear that she might be taken away from me, the way kids get taken away from their parents by social service agencies.

The only useful thing I ever do is to care for Puzzle.

For a while, the high points of my day were my walks with Puzzle. We zoomed around everywhere. Then the rest of the day would really suck. Now, everything sucks. We don't zoom. I just trudge around, and a lot of time when I walk Puzzle or walk anywhere, I cry.

It often feels like Me and My Dog Against the World. I have had four dogs and it has always felt like my dog knew me and understood me better than anyone. When I was a teenager I told my family dog my secrets once. I whispered into her ear.

Another time when I was a teenager I went to babysit and the family had a gray cat. I spent all night crying and stroking that cat.

When I was 21, I hitch-hiked across the country with my dog. If you were driving on the Interstate in 1979 and saw a kid dressed in rags hitch-hiking with a black-faced dog, that was me. Thanks for picking me up.

After that, I came home and got my eating disorder.

I live in low-income housing in an eight-story building. I've lived here four years now. The neighbors are mostly elderly and they are hostile, never welcomed me and don't know my name or Puzzle's. They gossip in the hall all day long. I've heard them say things about my weight. There is a lot of yelling and the TV's blare in the apartments all day long. I hear Wheel of Fortune for hours and the Pope on Sundays. It took a long time for Puzzle to adjust to being here, but when we're in our little space, we're safe.

0 # glad to meet you Julie. Welcome. It sounmylifex2 2012-05-15 20:54
glad to meet you Julie. Welcome. It sounds like you are isolating alot. I am assuming you have no connection with family. Do you work? Do you have any type of support system? Do you have an interest in being around others? Isolation never makes things better. You didn't expand on your eating disorder, but regardless, all eating disorders have similar roots.
Glad to hear you are reading HHH. I have read it once and am working on going thru it again. I pick up something new each time. Keep writing and let us know how you are doing. Having this support has been the best thing for me in terms of helping me move toward recovery.
Julie Greene
0 # Tracy, it is just so kind of you to respJulie Greene 2012-05-15 23:19
Tracy, it is just so kind of you to respond. I am so happy that you have found support here. I was kicked off the last website that had to do with eating issues. Basically the site was for people who weren't really severe cases, either up or down the scale or behavior-wise, and who didn't have the multitude of medical complications that I have. But this is just a wild guess on my part. I guess the site owner saw "anorexia" and freaked, probably envisioning that I weighed what my tiny dog weighs and ate nothing but a piece of bread every six months. People assume, and they put a stereotype on us. It's not only ignorance, it's discrimination, just like racism. Singling out people because they look different or have a different god or no god at all. You show up at school wearing the wrong color socks and you end up getting bullied for it.

Anyway, I was terrified to join on here, fearing getting kicked out of yet another situation where all I am doing is trying to find help. I only what I suppose everyone wants: to be loved and wanted and cared for. And accepted for who I am and can be.

And no, the world is not like that. People and institutions have spat on me so many times, especially since my relapse (2008, after I was raped), that I have learned not to trust. I shut people out. I am scared. I go for days without making any conversation whatsoever. In April, I think I had face-to-face with other human beings four times the entire month. The phone is useless cuz no one calls.

I have no therapist, either. Brick money, on public assistance (psychiatric disability), long waiting list at the clinics, which I am on. I'm not sure I want to be in therapy again, but my minister thinks I should have someone to talk to. I do have my church. Thank goodness. It is not the religion I was born into but the spiritual connection I feel there is very deep, and I feel that I can in fact celebrate and appreciate more my Ashkinazi Jew ethnicity and cultural past...all that I have inherited and have within me, my family roots...even more now...and again, celebrate that I am different, that everyone is different and just as human and wonderful as anyone else. Thankfully, I don't have to walk too far to get to the church, and when I do, the minister always takes time to chat with me, even if he is busy.

So no, no family. They gave up on me. They live nearby and won't have anything to do with me, or I won't have anything to do with them, for my own sanity. I get a call from one brother now and then and once in a blue moon, the other, but the situation is pitiful.

So back to behavior as metaphor...the current chapter I'm reading. I deprive myself socially and financially. I deprive myself of fresh air. I call this "simplicity" and "downsizing." Poverty has taught me a lot, a whole lot, actually. Debt has never bullied me. It's just there. I don't spend money. But maybe I'm kidding myself and should ask my brothers for a bit of money to help lower this ridiculous credit card bill.

That and the other extreme...such as this post being ridiculously long, for example. Excess. Going overboard. I spend so little time with people that when I do converse, it tends to all come out of me, having been bottled up for days on end. I spent a couple of weeks being an angry motor-mouth and I kept asking myself, "Wow! This isn't me! What has become of me?" Really shocked and scared that I am so angry. I left the hospital at the end of Feb in a whirl of anger. Looking back on over 30 years of abuse in mental hospitals (restraints, forced drugging, shock treatments, filthy conditions, and more) I feel like I've just escaped from this brainwashing cult called Mental Health Care, running for my life, and scared.
0 # I am sorry to hear of your bad experiencmylifex2 2012-05-16 05:14
I am sorry to hear of your bad experience with the mental health care system. Most private hospitals don't allow restraints, or forced meds unless you are involuntary and the benefits outweigh the risks. Sounds like you may have been in a state institution?
Have you ever been to an Eating Disorders you live in the US? There are several that take medicaid and or medicare. I can give you a list if you live in the US. If you are uninsured you can google the government section of the city or town you live in and look under mental health to locate the Community Services Board (CSB) for that locale and obtain case management, therapy and psychiatric care to include medication. They will do a financial screening and you only pay what you can afford.
They tend to try and use medications on the 4 dollar formulary (meds that are only 4 dollars for a months supply). So there is help out there. Sounds like you are burnt out.
Hopefully you can do better and avoid needing another hospitalization. keep coming here. We are a good bunch of people. Joanna is very supportive and knows how badly our eating disordered minds think. I had to eat and get more nourishment before I was really able to start processing this book and this site. But even on my angry and hopeless days, I get tons of support. And we all will have good and bad days. Good luck!
Julie Greene
0 # Hi Tracy, I was on an ED unit in Feb...iJulie Greene 2012-05-16 09:54
Hi Tracy, I was on an ED unit in is the only ED hospital in New England and I can get there in one short bus ride. They take care/caid. They have a psych side and an ED side. I was twice on the ED side in 2010, once on the psych side last September (this was a good experience) and this last time on the ED side again. The doctor/nurse practitioner assigned to me this last time never, ever read my chart. What mattered was weight and that was all. She never saw the blood tests or told me the results of the neuro exam even when I asked her to go look in my chart and just open the notebook for a change. She knew shockingly little about the medications I took, didn't know doses or side effects, was not aware of interactions (I had to point these out) and didn't know how to titrate. Never mind human rights abuses on the unit, including monitoring and censorship of every conversation we had. I went there in the first place because otherwise, I would have died, but ended up really kicking arse about human rights while I was there and finally had food in me enough to speak my mind. I don't think they'll let me back there.

Late in 2010 for a couple of months I was doing well and working in my own way, not in any program, just T treated me like an adult. Now and then she'd ask me what my weight was and made sure I was eating okay, and there was trust and respect between us. No grilling, no accusations, no threats. She was not an ED specialist but knew about ED. She was brilliant at art therapy. It would have been great if it had lasted, but she got laid off.

I got this new private practice therapist who took care/caid and was a specialist. She saw me within the framework of her training. So she was taught that all people with anorexia throw up their food. She saw me coming in there and eating lunch before our appointments, and she was under the assumption that before I walked into her office, I went to the bathroom every time and threw it up. This was never part of my repertoire of behaviors, which I made clear from the beginning, but her training told her that all people with anorexia can't be trusted to tell the truth about anything, ever. Then when I told her I was a runner, and that running helped me take pride in my body and feel strong and fit, there was immediately a problem, because her training told her that running always equals overexercising. I ran my first 5k, one of my big accomplishments. This was huge, a big moment for me. It was like triumph over my ED. All she did was to put me down and invalidate me. Yoga, apparently, is the stereotype "healthy exercise" for people like us, the "good" exercise, and running is "bad," always, period. She said she refused to see me unless I had my weight checked once a week by my PCP, because I guess that was her training, that all ED patients should have this done and all ED patients were alike. Our relationship from the start was based on lack of trust and disrespect. It breaks my heart that such a dedicated, compassionate and skilled therapist...she was nice, too...what a shame. I put up with a year of being with her and saw that I'd gone downhill and downhill...I fired her. I am free of her at last, but in bad, bad shape right now.

I have Medicare Part D and that pays for meds, right now about a dollar a bottle. My insurance covers my psychiatrist and I like her, but I don't dare walk into her office for fear that I'll lose it and start crying, maybe tell her too much about what's been going on, and that will be that...Section 12, as we call it in Massachusetts. I told myself I'd get the bingeing under control somehow and then I'd allow myself to go see her, the massive weight gain being so embarrassing as it is, but the bingeing never stopped. I can't freaking stop.

I really think I am losing my mind, completely losing it, engaging in dangerous behaviors and it's just getting worse. One of the ministers at church is calling me today, so that's good. I haven't had human "out loud" conversation for days...nearly a week.
0 # sounds like you have been thru a lot. jumylifex2 2012-05-16 13:25
sounds like you have been thru a lot. just make sure that if you are in a crisis you get the help you need. Remember, you have had some good experiences too. I hope you have a productive talk with your pastor. I am glad she is there for you :-)
Julie Greene
0 # Hi Tracy, I did speak with my minister,Julie Greene 2012-05-17 00:35
Hi Tracy, I did speak with my minister, and we spoke at length. I ended up phoning my old T and making an appointment with her in a week. We are going to try to work it out. I have second thoughts, though, and I'm going to see how soon I can find someone else, because after I thought about it, I really didn't think anything could be worked out with her. But I'll see how the week goes.

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