‘Animal Assisted Strategies’ -- Going to the dogs for help
Downtown Bethlehem went to the dogs one Tuesday in June, when mental health clinician Lynette Reed used service and therapy dogs to demonstrate how they and other animals are being used to help people suffering the effects of trauma. The demonstration was part of Reed’s presentation on “Animal Assisted Strategies in Creating Safety” during the International Institute for Restorative Practice’s three-day 2017 Summer Symposium at the Hotel Bethlehem.
In a recent survey of 10,000 people, more than half had been though some type of trauma, Reed told her audience of 16 from Canada and throughout the United States. The role of animals is to help people grieve and get through it, she said, adding that “focusing on trauma responses is important for us as restorative practitioners.”
Disassociation is one of the common responses to trauma, but “we often miss it or misdiagnose it,” Reed said. It is manifested by detachments from self and reality, memory lapses and fear. “We are dealing with irrational thoughts and responses. In trauma response, the right brain gets hijacked and flooded with emotions.”
So, why animals?
“They help bring us calm, presence, unconditional regard, empathy, support and protection,” Reed explained. “Animals provide non-verbal communication straight from the right brain, and they have the ability to sense bio-physical changes.”
Reed showed a video featuring an Iraqi war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and his service dog, who sensed whenever his master became disconnected from reality. The dog would reach up to the veteran’s chest and touch him with his paw, or jump on him, until the man reconnected.
“With animals, the goal is to shorten the stress response,” Reed said.
When the service and therapy dogs arrived at the classroom on Main Street in Bethlehem, where the presentation was being held, they walked around the room, sat in front of people who petted them and demonstrated their training with their handlers.
Besides the non-verbal cues that dogs pick up on, “their non-verbal response makes you feel that someone is listening and emphasizing,” Reed said, as her two dogs, Holly and Tory, visited each participant in the room.
Andrew Lynn, a music teacher at Freedom HS, brought in Rivers, a rescued black female service dog he is training to be attached 24/7 to a war veteran. He explained that that service dogs received longer and higher levels of training than therapy dogs, and they are trained to stay with only one person who needs some form of help.
Another visitor to the classroom was right at home. Jingle’s visited with his owner Joyce McGettigen, who uses her mixed-breed therapy dog to work with kids in schools.
While dogs got most of the attention, Reed stressed that many other animals also are useful in helping people deal with trauma. Mentioning equine therapy, she said, “Horses are very intuitive animals. They recognize patterns [in lives] that need adjustment and help people rewrite the narratives in their lives. Horses have a very distinct language—quiet. Listening to them you can feel the connections and the peace,” Reed said.