Canine Counselors: Helping People Heal

Contributor: Debra M. Cooper, graduate of Arizona State University, writer for Eating Disorder Hope

Most therapists are extremely smart and compassionate. Some of the best in the field are notably bright, yet hold no college degree; have great compassion, yet convey this empathy only through snuggles and tail wags.

Animal therapy has existed for many years. Although horses are used in this capacity, dogs are far more common, due to their size and prevalence. Depending on the program, animal therapy is conducted on a variety of levels. A dog may be present to extend comfort while a particularly painful topic is discussed in one-on-one therapy.

The Unique Qualification of a Dog

An adolescent and retriever might play together for sheer enjoyment; a woman and spaniel may spend quiet time together for simple relaxation. Dogs are uniquely qualified to help people who struggle with bulimia.

Those with this particular eating disorder typically consume a great deal of food, then vomit. Although these behaviors help to regulate painful emotions, the individual often experiences profound shame and guilt.

Dogs Do Not Judge

Dogs are not in the shame and guilt business. They do not know or care if a woman or girl purges once or five times a day. Additionally and importantly, they do not care in the least what she looks like.

Dogs are what human beings “should” be, but usually are not. They are not judgmental, critical nor condemning. They have open, loving hearts and freely extend this love to everyone equally. They ask little in return; mostly, like the rest of the world, dogs just want to be accepted, treated well and loved.

Time to Just “Be” with a Dog

dog-682236_640Talk therapy is essential to effective treatment. Only when the “whys” behind a disorder are understood can real healing begin. However, time spent with a four-legged therapist requires no interaction. Freed from thinking, analyzing, or synthesizing information, it allows a woman or girl time to just “be.”

Mindfulness, a component of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), is frequently utilized in the treatment of bulimia. Mindfulness refers to living in the present, in the now. A dog is the quintessential example of what it is to be mindful. Yesterday and tomorrow are irrelevant concepts to an animal; all that matters is right now.

Staying in the Moment

For example, say a woman in treatment is stroking a dog in her lap. The dog, living in the present moment, is comfortable and content. This is exactly what we want for the woman: we want her to feel the warmth of the animal, see its tranquil face; hear its rhythmic breathing. For that moment in time, there is no pain from the past, no worry for the future; there is only the peace of the moment, and that is worth a very great deal.

Animal therapy is certainly not confined to a treatment center or counselor’s office. As a woman or girl progresses in her recovery, she may consider adding a puppy or kitten as a delightful component of her new abundant life. Both offer what God wants everyone to experience: unconditional love and pure joy.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you or your loved one experience benefits from pet therapy? Please share your brief story!

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 28th, 2015
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