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Animal Assisted Therapy: Sacred Spaces

The best day of every week is Friday. It’s been this way for almost five years. This has nothing to do with Friday being the end of the work week. First of all, being self-employed, Friday’s are often not the end of my work week. Friday afternoons are about bringing the sweetest soul I have ever known to visit people in counseling. Myles McHenry Stover is an eight year old Border collie that loves everyone from UPS drivers to feral kittens to neurotic women (me) and is especially sensitive to people in emotional pain. It is hard to describe what he does for people. I feel privileged to have witnessed some of the most private and intense moments while watching him work. Someone can be locked inside their mental trauma and somehow Myles has the key to their particular door for a few moments of relief.

mylesofsmilesatworkI am not a clinician.  I am lucky, however, that the people I admire and work with the most are behavioral health providers. These are the people I spend my volunteer time with as well. A jolt of a reminder about how important it is to show up and be present every week was given to me two Friday’s ago. Earlier this year my father passed away. I disappeared from the therapy dog scene without a word to anyone. I knew all would be forgiven and in the throes of work, grief, and shock, volunteering took a back seat. I am still grieving of course, but it was time to get back to what I consider my real work. This is the work that my company pays for by allowing me time and funds to take most Fridays off from the necessity engine of making money.

Someone had mistakenly written the time Myles and I show up as two hours earlier than usual. When we didn’t arrive until our regular time, two hours later, everyone was so relieved. I was warned by someone that it was a particularly stressful day.  In a mental health institution that could mean many things. People were visibly relieved when we excited the elevator and walked to the front desk, “Oh….thank you for coming. Thank God you are here.  Everyone needs you guys today.  We thought you weren’t coming.”

I felt bad. Had my few months of not showing up caused everyone to think they couldn’t count on us? Possibly. Or was this the typical chatter in my head telling me I don’t do enough to help anyone and is what I do really helping? My own anxiety and mental ailments aside, yes, I do help. Is it mostly my dog? Of course! I know what my role is: leash holder, chauffeur, story teller, and non-judgmental listener. I’ve learned over the years how vital it is as the handler to be as open as possible while also fading in with the furniture. It’s fine for a therapy dog to enter someone’s safe and sacred therapeutic space but not so fine for the one holding the leash. Human’s pass judgment. Mental illness is a breeding ground for shame and stigma.

It is hard to describe what an honor it is to know that someone had no intention of trusting me in their emotional space but somewhere during a visit I am also given a pass beyond their necessary shield of safety. Myles almost instantaneously is given access, not always, but most of the time. Just because I am holding the leash does not give me automatic entry. I am not as fuzzy or as cute but my breath is better (I hope).

We were told a few years ago that we were being monitored. This was no surprise to me and it wasn’t meant as a warning. The monitoring was about how many times Myles figured out who needed his attention the most; his accuracy was 100% of the time. I used to make sure he spent equal time with every person and then I relaxed into my role as a handler and let him do what he innately knew. I got out of his way. I also learned how to get out of my way. There is no school for this work. You learn how to do it over time and you do it well by being in therapy yourself. How would I feel if someone came into my therapy session with a dog?  The dog is cool but who is the person on the other end of the leash?

Getting back to volunteer work has helped me move into the next phases of grief. I worry about Myles getting older and having to retire but he 297166_281482705199395_11190537_n-79e655c802seems just as happy as when he was younger now that he just shows up and lays on the ground to be pet as he did running up and down the hospital corridors. We were all joking during our last visit how he’s really got it made. He used to spend almost every moment bringing a ball to everyone in the room. Now he plunks himself in the middle of the floor and rolls over inciting everyone to roll around with him. An entire visit can consist of many people petting him in every conceivable favorite spot while feeding him treats and cooing about how he is the most handsome dog they’ve ever seen. I can’t see where this is a downside in his career as a therapy dog. His younger brother Buddy is glad to take over leaping in the air for balls and kibble.

A next chapter for this work is that we are starting to travel to behavioral health centers more often to do workshops on animal assisted therapy. We’ll be leading a session at NCTide this year showing mental health providers what we do and how beneficial therapy dogs can be during treatment. It was easy to get providers Myles and I have volunteered with for years to take time off of work to help teach these sessions. This work has spread into my career as well. We’ll be driving and flying to a few different states this fall to work with behavioral health organizations on software adoption while holding sessions about therapy dogs.

If I could pay bills with air I would just talk about therapy dog work. I am lucky I can combine my career and volunteer time, very lucky. Somehow not-for-profit mental health organizations find the funding to pay for dog travel. Grants are amazing things! And if they can’t, we come anyway.

We’ll have a few people from Therapy Dogs, Incorporated join us on Mental Health News Radio to talk about what it takes to get involved with this work. Please stay tuned and also visit Myles anytime at Myles of Smiles. Yes, he has his own website. I am a handler and a nerd with a great web design.


Kristin Sunanta Walker

Founder, Myles of Smiles

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