Dog As Co-Therapist in Eating Disorder Recovery
- Category: Healing Resources
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.
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.
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? :)