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Therapy Dogs, the Calming Antidote to Anxiety

By Bianca Husodo

 
Felicia Yap
 

As I traversed up the walkway towards one of the small houses lodged in Holland Village’s sun-dappled neighbourhood, two maize yellow heads bobbed up and down behind its large clear glass window facing the narrow porch, greeting me with sheer enthusiasm bubbling over. Genial barks echoed, muffled by the glass. Tails were so rapidly wagged they blurred in their unshielded giddiness. I was a long lost friend of theirs, it seemed, when in reality I was nothing more than a complete stranger.

When the front door, the only barricade between us, swung open, Telly and Hope halted. They didn’t immediately rush over and slobber me with wet kisses as I expected they would. The pair tilted their heads in assessment, of my level of tolerance I learned later on. When I slightly bent down and patted my thighs, however, in a split second, they took turns to prance on their hind legs, resting their soft paws on my lower abdomen — once again an old friend of theirs from another life.

Telly and Hope are therapy dogs. Maureen Huang, their owner, trainer and co-therapist launched Pawsibility, a pioneering hub for animal-assisted psychotherapy in Singapore, back in 2013. Huang, a former banker, first discovered the untapped therapeutical value of animals when she volunteered for Riding for the Disabled Association, a non-profit organisation providing horse-riding therapy, or hippotherapy, to children and adult with disabilities.

Felicia YapLeft to right: Therapy dogs Hope, an Australian golden retriever that’s turning three this year; Telluride, fondly nicknamed Telly,  a Colorado native seven-year-old Labrador-retriever mix; and Riley, a trainee therapy mini schnauzer.
Left to right: Therapy dogs Hope, an Australian golden retriever that’s turning three this year; Telluride, fondly nicknamed Telly, a Colorado native seven-year-old Labrador-retriever mix; and Riley, a trainee therapy mini schnauzer.

“When I did my research, there was a whole world out there that in Singapore, we were not aware of at all,” she said. Huang believer there was more to animal-assisted therapy than what was being offered at the time. She quitted her job, moved to Colorado and underwent a two-year training for animal-assisted therapy before eventually returning to Singapore to start Pawsibility.

Therapy dogs are not service dogs, which are trained to assist people with disabilities like guide dogs for the blind. Nor are they the same with emotional support dogs, of which act as security blankets to those with depression or anxiety. In contrast to these almost-personalised types of dogs, therapy dogs don’t cater to select individuals. They encounter diverse people on a regular basis. A registered therapy dog can be any size, any breed — they needn’t be tiny and fluffy — though what truly sets it apart is its high threshold for strangers and physical contact. It needs to know how to interact with humans without being aggressive and absorb stress without getting stressed.

Going for a dog-assisted therapy isn’t as abnormal of an experience as some would think. Huang explained, “We’re like any other therapists you might go to. The only difference is that we have dogs in the setting. The presence of a safe dog makes a lot of difference.”

Felicia Yap“You’ll notice that all three dogs have different temperaments. Telly is super active, she’s the one that’ll go “I’m so excited, I want to play every game.”,” said Huang.
“You’ll notice that all three dogs have different temperaments. Telly is super active, she’s the one that’ll go “I’m so excited, I want to play every game.”,” said Huang.

Telly, an upbeat seven-year-old Labrador retriever mix, was Huang’s first canine in her roster of therapy dogs. Short for Telluride, she was trained by Huang herself for a year in Colorado, of which famed mining mountain she was named after. Telly loved to hike, Huang said. At the mention of her name, Telly stood, ostensibly aware she was the topic of conversation.

“Tell-Tell, now you be a good girl. Can you lay down for me?” Huang gently prompted. Telly obeyed. “Good girl.”

Not far from Telly lounged Hope, an Australian golden retriever of which turns three this year. The yin to Telly’s yang, she’s calm and poised. These quelling traits apparently make her the favourite among the clientele of teenage girls, according to Huang.

“She’s a big dog who thinks she’s a lap dog,” said Huang, before asking Hope to hop on the couch I was seated on and rest on my lap. The mass of a mature golden retriever heaved down on me, its significant but gentle weight anchoring me to my seat. “She’s for clients who’d like a dog to pet.”

Felicia Yap“Hope likes hugs and being on the lap. She’s very popular with my teenage girl clients. That’s her population,” said Huang.
“Hope likes hugs and being on the lap. She’s very popular with my teenage girl clients. That’s her population,” said Huang.

People often have misconceptions that therapy needed to be serious, pointed Huang, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s more emotional safety when there’s fun, when one’s relaxed. 

At Pawsibility, Huang and her team — Telly, Hope and Evania Tan, a human psychologist — work with a wide spectrum of mental, emotional and health issues. Depression, anxiety, anger issues, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapy sessions are tailored according to a client’s personality and preferences.

The dogs serve as a buffer from an anxiety-generating stimulus that a client faces. This intervention diverts a client’s penchant for withdrawal and avoidance, allowing for more openness. As catalysts and mediators, they help expedite the rapport-building process between client and therapist. Their presence and unscripted behaviour provide a neutral, external subject on which to focus. Conversations become easier to start.

Sidestepping barricaded self-awareness, clients are able to better reveal difficult thoughts, feelings, conflicts or experiences. A side-door technique to potentially tap deeper into what would otherwise be suppressed and repressed.

Huang uses animal stories and metaphors, often paralleling the client’s experience with a narrative involving Telly and Hope. Similar to distraction methods, Huang is able to skirt around clients’ defences and resistance as they relate to the metaphor, finding it less threatening than answering directive inquiries. 

Though a large portion of animal-assisted therapy beneficiaries is made up of children — whose sessions are interwoven with strategised playtime with the dogs that help tackle their root issue — a growing number of adolescents and adults are tapping into its therapeutical values, too.

“For a lot of the adult clients, all they really want is a dog that sits next to them. We include activities as and when necessary, but most of the time, the dogs are just there for comfort,” said Huang.

She recalled a businessman who came in to see her the other day. “He said he went to a psychologist, sat on a white chair and had lights shone on him like he was being interrogated. But here, he got to play fetch with the dog. He’s a grown man, and he said it was fun and that it felt more like talking to a friend. When you’re able to let down your walls, you can get so much more out of a therapy session than when you’re feeling nervous, scrutinised. That causes you to shut down.”

Felicia YapMaureen Huang, founder and therapist at Pawsibility.
Maureen Huang, founder and therapist at Pawsibility.

Although research to support the efficacy of animal-assisted therapy is in its early stages, the notion that the presence of, or interactions with animals (dogs, in particular) can induce stress-buffering effects in humans has been recorded in medical literature for centuries. The close companionship of a “spaniel gentle or comforter” — a sort of nondescript, hairy lap dog — was recommended to the ladies of Elizabethan England as a remedy for a variety of ills.  In the 19th century, the benefits of animal companionship also appear to have been recognised as serving a therapeutical role in the treatment of physical ailments. Florence Nightingale, in her ‘Notes of Nursing’ book, observed that a small pet “is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially.”

Recent studies show that after just 20 minutes with a therapy dog, patients’ levels of stress hormones drop and levels of pain-reducing endorphins rise. Transient improvements in physiological parameters — such as heart rate and blood pressure — has been well cemented, but more evidence that animal-assisted therapy produces effects beyond these short-term benefits are being accumulated. Research and opinion on the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for people with autism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other concerns are starting to coalesce.

So why do dogs rouse comforting effects? “Dogs, they are able to read emotions. They’re intuitive,” answered Huang. “Telly herself is very intuitive. She’d be able to single out the person in a group who’s feeling down. Before they even drop their tears, Telly goes over and licks their face. I wouldn’t know this. People put up really good masks.”

Of course, those averse to dogs or animals in general might not want to go for animal-assisted therapy, Huang warned, “In the beginning, you need to ask yourself, do I like animals? Will this be something that benefit me?”

Therapy dogs are hardly the silver bullet to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Often described as better than any medicine, however, therapy dogs know instinctively when someone needs loving attention. And they can be the avenue, the catalyst perhaps, towards a state of relaxation some struggle to achieve.

“A lot of times the dogs give our clients that message of hope. They bring us joy and cheer,” Huang mused. Indeed, as I stepped out the same door, trudging down the same pathway I walked up one full hour ago, the visceral warmth that unknowingly formed in my belly drifted its way to my lips, pulling up their corners. I smiled to myself. I felt different. Better.

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