A Therapist’s Best Friend

A Therapist’s Best Friend

by Daniel Fryer
Dogs may well be peoples’ steady companions, but they can also be a therapist’s best friend.

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A while back, I was asked to present my animal assisted therapy work (AAT) to a group of masters students who were studying applied animal behavior and training. I was especially eager to share how in the course of my traditional work in rational emotive and clinical hypnotherapy, I had ventured into this little-researched but highly effective therapeutic modality. And somewhere along the way, my dog Lara would also acquire some well-deserved therapeutic notoriety. Allow me to explain.


Lara Earns Her Degree

I met Lara in 2014 when she was at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, a charity rescue centre near London, near to where I was living at the time. Lara was the first of what was meant to be many dogs that I would foster. However, I fell at the first hurdle and adopted her. We have been together ever since.
I met Lara in 2014 when she was at the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home


I moved to Bristol two years later, where I applied for a job as a part-time CBT therapist at the Priory Bristol, a local private psychiatric hospital. The interview went tremendously well, as I had mentioned my dog and it turned out that both I and the therapy services manager had Staffordshire Bull Terriers. Out came the photos on our respective smartphones. After much mutual cooing, the therapy services manager asked, “Have you ever done any therapy with her?” I had, albeit only a little and incidentally.

I had used Lara to help two different clients deal with their dog phobias
I had used Lara to help two different clients deal with their dog phobias. At the appropriate time in treatment, I brought her to the clinic and gradually introduced her to my client. First, I allowed her in the room but did not let her directly interact with the clients. When they were ready, I allowed Lara to have a nose and a sniff, and then invited the clients to stroke and interact with her. These safely-guided interactions slowly evolved into walks at the local dog park.

Another time, a mother asked me to help her autistic son, who was having anxiety issues related to his studies at university. When I asked her if there was anything I could do or should know about to help facilitate a smoother session for him, she asked, “I don’t suppose you have a dog, do you?” Apparently, this young man loved dogs and could communicate more fluidly if one was present. And so he spent all our sessions on the floor, petting Lara while talking to but never looking at me.

I landed the role at the Priory. It was during my first week of induction training that the manager asked if I would like to work three full days per week rather than the three mornings discussed. “I’d like to, but I can’t,” I said. This was not the answer she was hoping for. I explained that I had moved to Bristol to be closer to nature and to have lovely places to walk Lara. Leaving her at home while I worked or having a dog walker visit her only at lunchtimes was not part of my agenda.

“I can understand that,” she said, and then asked me again during my second week of training if I would work the three full days. “I thought I had made my position clear,” I said. “Oh, you did,” she replied. “But what if you brought Lara to work and added animal assisted therapy to your offerings here? You would have to think of formal therapy activities, so it won’t simply be the case of ‘bringing your dog to work.’”

The Priory Bristol, as it turned out, had a history of incorporating animals—including dogs, rabbits, and Shetland ponies—into their therapeutic milieu. The hospital itself was set in some rather lovely grounds, with meadows behind it; all perfect places to walk a dog, so I agreed.

For my continual professional development training that year, I undertook a distance learning course on AAT and had Lara assessed and registered with a charity called Pets as Therapy. She immediately began accompanying me to work.


Part of the Team

At The Priory, I work with clients both individually and in groups, where Lara acts as an icebreaker, rapport, and instant trust builder. My groups have a better attendance record than most at the facility, not because of therapeutic modality or my style of delivery, but rather because of the presence of my dog. Lara is great to have on hand for people who love dogs, but she's also very intuitive and good at providing comfort during moments of distress, usually by putting her head in client’s laps.
also very intuitive and good at providing comfort during moments of distress


The Priory also contains five bedded wards and so, once a week, prior to COVID, Lara and I participated in rounds, visiting people who either missed their own or simply liked interacting with dogs. She also joined occasional exercise or rehab programs at the facility, where service users and I would walk Lara together, or play fetch in the walled garden.

My work with one particular service user highlighted the clear difference between an animal assisted activity and simply “bringing your dog to work.” Julia (not her real name), a long-stay resident on our dementia ward, loved dogs, and walking Lara down the lane and back became part of her tailored exercise plan. Because she had dementia, a poster of Lara was placed on her bedroom wall to act as a reminder, and so she always looked forward to Friday mornings walks with Lara. Until one day, she didn’t. She refused to participate and continued refusing to participate for several Fridays after that.

After a bit of investigating, I discovered that not only was one of the doctors on the ward bringing her dog to work, but so too was one of the nurses. And they were both leaving their respective animals with Julia “because she liked dogs.” And so, by Friday, having had her fill of canine company, Julia was refusing to walk my dog and was, therefore, not getting the exercise she needed. Sadly, I had to put the service on hold.

A little later, both the doctor and the nurse left the facility, so I tried to reintroduce dog walking, but Julia would have none of it. Every time I came near her with Lara, she told me to “bugger off.” Julia blamed me, you see. She went from one dog to three dogs to no dogs and in her mind, due to her dementia, saw me as the culprit. To this day, we cannot get her to walk with the dog.

Elsewhere in the hospital, Lara is used as a reinforcer in the context of a token economy—and by that, I mean a bribe. One of our wards is dedicated to treating service users with eating disorders. Each service user has a meal plan that they agree to. Sticking to the plan is essential to their recovery. When they don’t agree or comply, their privileges can be removed. “Eat your dinner,” they are told, “or you won’t be able to play with the dog on Friday.” It works.

Similarly, service users who don’t behave, cause trouble, or (if they are young and receiving schooling) don’t do their homework are told they can’t see the dog. They generally learned to calm down, behave and quickly apply themselves.

I have been reliably informed that across all the wards, Lara is good for morale and that both service users and staff look forward to the visits
. She has even been used as bait. One afternoon, one of our young service users was refusing to go back to the ward after her late morning walk. A sturdy girl, she had thrown herself on the floor in the reception area and was clinging to one of the railings. She was there as I left to take the dog for a walk and was still there on my return some 40 minutes later. The staff were polite but frustrated. I motioned to the ward manager. “She likes the dog,” I said.

“Great!” said the ward manager, and we used Lara, and the promise of interacting with her, to lure the young woman back to the ward and her room, step by step, with me walking backwards, Lara following me, and the service user following the dog, all the way back to her room, where she was then allowed to stroke and cuddle her.

“Thank you for that,” said the ward manager gratefully. “That’s okay,” I said. “Only in this place is it normal for a middle-aged man to lure a teenage girl to her bedroom with the promise of a puppy.” “That’s dark,” she said. But she still sent a message to my manager saying how helpful both myself and Lara had been.


Added Benefits

Lara doesn’t just benefit the inservice and outservice users. Her presence in the workplace seems to contribute to a reduced sense of stress and increased productivity. She has a bed in an alcove in the therapy services department just behind my desk. Stressed staff often come to visit her during mini-breaks to calm down and enjoy some doggy time. And as I walk around the hospital, she is like a little wave of joy who participates in a dozen or more pleasurable micro-interactions in the course of our day.
her presence in the workplace seems to contribute to a reduced sense of stress and increased productivity


Such a benefit is Lara that the Priory marketing department turned her into a feel-good intranet news story. A local newspaper then picked up on this and turned her into a minor local celebrity. Since then, she has appeared in various magazines, newspapers and pet and pet therapy websites (local, national, and global), has been used in social media posts by both the Priory and Battersea Dogs and Cats Homes, and has appeared in marketing videos for both. I’ve joked several times now that I should be getting her an agent.

At the end of every session in both my private practice and hospital work, I provide a written summary and five questions for clients to reflect on. I ask what their biggest learning point from the session was, what was and was not helpful, and so on. During sessions when Lara has not been present (such as when recovering from an operation or because she was fast asleep in her basket), people have often written, “I missed the dog,” under what was not helpful about the session. One man who was seeing me regularly for hypnotherapy stated, “I really missed the reassuring sound of Lara snoring during my session.” Even when Lara doesn’t appear to be doing anything therapeutic, she is still providing some sort of therapy benefit.

*****


As I delivered that talk to those students I mentioned at the opening of this article, I reflected on all these points and more, and reflected on how
I consider a dog essential to my own wellbeing
I consider a dog essential to my own wellbeing. I also very much enjoy being the therapist with a dog and feel very privileged that I can take her to work with me every day. As I write this article, she is asleep on the sofa, whimpering softly and dreaming doggy dreams. 

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Bios
Daniel Fryer Daniel Fryer, MSc, DHYp, PDCBHyp, MBSCH, is a psychotherapist working in private practice and private healthcare. He is the author of The Four Thoughts That F*ck You Up… and How To Fix Them, out now from Penguin Random House imprint, Vermillion. For more information visit www.danielfryer.com