Tag Archives: Animal Assisted Therapy

Therapy cat offers healing support to patients

Haven is Rebecca Stares' co-therapist in her animal assisted therapy practice.

Haven is Rebecca Stares’ co-therapist in her animal assisted therapy practice.

By Rebecca Stares

“Meow,” articulated Haven. The client ignored him. “Meow!” he repeated. Nothing. Haven, an orange tabby with an exceptional personality and gift for being in the right place at the right time, walked right up to our client and bellowed at her, “MEOW!!”

“I think he’s trying to tell me something,” said the client. “Without a doubt,” was the thought that crossed my mind, but I waited for her to continue. “I’m not very good at speaking up when I need to, and I think he’s reminding me of that.” Message received! And how appropriate given the theme of our session was helping our client find her voice and communicate assertively. Once acknowledged, Haven jumped off her lap and curled up on the seat beside her, silent for the remainder of the session.

Haven is more than just a cat and my office mate, he’s also a co-therapist in my animal assisted therapy practice. As a co-therapist, Haven has a unique role in helping our clients develop awareness into their own lives, and in practicing the thoughts and behaviours necessary for change. Clients, ranging in age from four to 84, seek us out for support with anxiety, depression, attachment disorders, behavioural challenges, addiction, divorce, bereavement, life changes, etc. Being quite the gifted co-therapist, Haven offers emotional support, affection, and very clear lessons about boundaries, making requests and personal space, among other things.

While many people think of therapy animals as being dogs and horses rather than cats, Haven easily overcomes any preconceived notions (that cats are aloof, for instance) when he meets you at the door. Haven is integral in rapport building, soothing any initial visit jitters and offering an easy icebreaker into a personal dialogue. He is warm and friendly whether lying belly-up in your lap or curled up on the back of the chair. He models relationship skills while gently reinforcing that relationships are about negotiation and compromise.

When he purrs — and you can’t miss it because it is quite loud — it not only demonstrates affection but provides positive validation regarding your engagement. You will always know when your relationship skills and communication skills are up to par, as cats, and particularly Haven, don’t respond well to coercion of any kind. (Bribery will only work if provide the tastiest morsels.)

What I love about cats as co-therapists is that you can’t hide your emotions from them. Haven responds to clients’ feelings and helps both the clients and myself access and attend to them. Most impressively, Haven does this while offering unconditional acceptance of who you are.  Best co-therapist ever!

Animal assisted therapy helps humans heal without words

Georgia, a "Chimo" dog, helps students at the University of Alberta's Campus Saint-Jean relax during exams as part of its "Unwind Your Mind" stress relief project.

Georgia, a “Chimo” dog, helps students at the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean relax during exams as part of its “Unwind Your Mind” stress relief project.

By Sherry Warner

One of the oldest relationships on the planet is the human/animal bond. Those of us who are fortunate enough to share our lives with pets know what they bring to our lives — a sense of joy and unconditional love. And nowhere can you see the significance of this bond better than in the healing modality of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT).

Kyla Rae, president of Chimo Animal Assisted Wellness & Learning Society, an Edmonton-based non-profit that assists in the development, planning, and implementation of AAT in a wide variety of settings, describes AAT as a goal directed intervention where the animal is an integral part of a structured treatment program.

“There are so many different situations you can put this adjunct therapy in place,” says Kyla. AAT can be used in a therapeutic setting, in educational institutions or as part of a physical therapy or occupational therapy program, she explains.

When psychologists and psychiatrists use AAT in their practices, the presence of the animal, whether the patient interacts with the animal or not, helps create a sense of trust, safety and security. “The patient sees that the animal is comfortable with the therapist and that the animal trusts them,” says Kyla. “That helps create that trust in a relationship that is dependent on trust.”

In a school setting, for example, with children who have ADD or autism, AAT may help encourage the behaviours teachers are looking for. “In that setting, if things get too rowdy or uncomfortable, the animal will walk away so then the kids realize that the dog is moving away and they will start to calm down and the animal will come back.”

Both the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary as well as other post-secondary institutions across Canada bring in dogs to help students relieve stress during exam time.

AAT can also be used in a physical or occupational therapy setting to help patients heal after an injury or surgery. “Often with seniors or people who have had severe trauma and needed surgery, they get to a point in their treatment where they plateau and don’t want to do anything that is asked of them in terms of rehab,” explains Kyla. But if there is a dog around, the therapist may suggest taking the dog for a walk to get the patient moving again.

Whatever setting AAT is used in, the goals are chosen by the professional — whether it’s a librarian, social worker, nurse, teacher, psychologist or psychiatrist — and their client or patient depending on the situation.


Straja Linder King's patient, Shannon, enjoys some down time with King's two therapy dogs, Twillow and Tala, at her Strawberry Moon Art Studio in Calgary.

Straja Linder King’s patient, Shannon, enjoys some down time with King’s two therapy dogs, Twillow and Tala, at her Strawberry Moon Art Studio in Calgary.

Straja Linder King is a board certified, registered clinical art therapist and a pioneer in art and  animal-assisted psychotherapy. With the assistance of her two Shiloh Shepherds, Twillow Rose and Tala Rain, Straja counsels patients experiencing all types of challenges from grief to stress, developmental or learning disabilities and addiction to those suffering disease such as cancer or Aspergers Syndrome.

“AAT is a wonderful treatment modality that is effective because it’s non-verbal,” says Straja. “I love that I’ve merged the animal assisted therapy with the art therapy because that gives me a language that’s older than words.”

Animals are incredible because they’re totally unbiased, they’re non-judgmental and they don’t care about your value and belief system, she says. If people are shut down, grief stricken and haven’t showered for days, there is something incredible about an animal being non-judgmental, explains Straja. “They can make a connection with the animal without rejection and criticism.

“If you are in the darkest night of your soul, brushing your teeth is just not going to be high on the order. It’s all you can do to get your butt out of bed and actually put some clothes on,” she adds. “The dogs help build trust in the therapeutic alliance so we can roll our sleeves up and do some of the deeper work.”

There are many benefits to patients of AAT. Through all of the research that has been done on this kind of treatment, there are five benefits to patients that studies consistently reveal, says Kyla. They are reduced anxiety, increased social interaction, increased attendance, increased motivation and reduced depression.

Shiloh Shepherds Twillow Rose and Tala Rain are Straja Linder Kings therapy dogs.

Shiloh Shepherds Twillow Rose and Tala Rain are Straja Linder Kings therapy dogs.

In Straja’s practice and depending on the patient, Twillow and Tala help them understand healthy boundaries and the sacredness of play, enhance their social skills and learn how to communicate better and boost their confidence and self esteem.

“The animals create a positive relationship and that’s (the patient’s) first segue into safely working towards reengaging in society and communicating,” says Straja. “And it’s one of the first steps to initiate closer relationships with people.”

Not every dog is an ideal candidate for AAT. Dogs suitable to work in this field can be a purebred or a mixed breed but there are some innate qualities that make the best animal assisted therapy dogs. The dogs have to really like people, be friendly, have an even temperament and not be afraid of strangers or new situations, says Kyla. They need to be obedient to whoever is handling the animal. The can be very social in nature, but have to be able to focus on what they are there to do, she adds.

“We have lots and lots of rescue dogs, which make a fantastic example to use for the people you are working with,” says Kyla. “With some of these dogs and the situations they have come out of they’re still able to come and do this kind of really important work and do it confidently even though they suffered.”

Straja sums up the benefits of AAT when she says: “Animals make us better human beings. They are the best diet and medical plan there is.”

Chimo Animal Assisted Therapy:
Chimo AAT was founded in 1999 by Dennis Anderson, who at that time, was the Alberta president of the Canadian Mental Health Association. The organization was initially called The Chimo Project, and was named after Dennis’s animal companion, Chimo, a Blue Heeler/Labrador cross.

Dennis personally experienced the psychological benefits of human-animal interactions, and he aspired to obtain evidence that animals may be beneficial in the treatment of persons with mental health concerns.

The name “Chimo” comes from the Inuit toast for “good cheer”, which is what the organization hopes to bring to those suffering from mental illness. Chimo’s mission is to develop and make available effective animal assisted therapeutic services to health and social services providers. Chimo AAT supports effective AAT through program development, education and research evaluation.

Here is a run down of the work Chimo does:

• Recruit and certify therapy animals including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, and mini-horses
• Recruit and train volunteers with qualified animals
• Train a wide variety of therapists to use animals to help their clients
• Facilitate ongoing AAT programs in our community
• Provide services to assist new facilities in creating and sustaining their own AAT programs

For more information visit www.chimoproject.ca

Strawberry Moon Counselling 
In addition to offering art and animal assisted therapy at her Calgary-based Strawberry Moon Art Studio, Straja Linder King teaches two full credit courses in the Addictions Program in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Lethbridge: Introduction to art therapy with animal assistance and Merging animal assisted therapy and art therapy.

Straja also offers a number of workshops including Living On Artfully: Healing From Loss; Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out; Animal Communication; and Soul Wisdom: Deeper Meaning Through the Arts to name a few.

For more information visit www.strawberrymooncounselling.com