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Talk Therapy For Dogs

We’ve been learning a lot about how dogs can be helpful to people, as therapy dogs, guide dogs, service dogs, grief and tension and anxiety and stress relieving dogs. But where can dogs go for therapy?

When Cricket was in her second training class, her anxiety was through the roof, and her trainer was unable to break through the storm in her brain to make much progress at teaching or calming her. I have tried massage, exercise, and medication, but each one only helps Cricket a little bit, and only for the short term.

Cricket is tied up in knots.

Cricket is tied up in knots.

To me, the point of talk therapy is to be heard and valued by another person, and, if at all possible, understood. I feel like Cricket really is trying to talk to us, and she is frustrated by our inability to understand. If only we could find her a therapist who could listen to her version of talking, and really understand her. I get the gist of what she’s saying, but I think I miss the subtleties.

When we are getting ready to go out for a walk, Cricket makes an insistent cawing sound that echoes through the hallway. She seems to be telling me to get her leash, but she repeats the message over and over like a panicked car alarm, even after her leash is on.

When her Grandma comes home after even a short absence, Cricket climbs on Grandma’s lap, paws her face, and cries, a very delicate, high pitched keening sound that seems to express her grief and fear during the unacceptable absence.

Her most verbal-like moments are the long diatribes when she trills and gurgles and growls and seems to be pleading her case, usually for some item of food. I listen to her. I nod my head. I respond with “Hmm, that’s interesting,” or, “I never thought of it that way,” and, gradually, she gets it all out of her system and flops on the floor, exhausted.

Cricket just wants to be understood.

Cricket just wants to be understood.

Butterfly, who spent most of her first eight years in a puppy mill, surrounded by other dogs and not many people, communicates more with body language. She licks people to tell them that she likes them. She licks her lips to let us know that she’s anxious, and her tongue can even fold in half from the tension. She barks at me in the middle of the night if I accidentally push or kick her, because she has chosen to sleep where I think my arms or legs should be. But she especially likes to express herself through dance, hopping and skipping across the grass when she’s happy, and stiffening her neck and sitting perfectly still when she’s mad. I’d still like to help her find a way to process her sadness and grief, from her years in the puppy mill, but I don’t know how to do that. Could we try paw painting? Or sand play?

Butterfly speaks without words.

Butterfly speaks without words.

Sometimes, I think the girls could use another dog as their therapist. A mentor dog could act as a role model and show them the ropes. She would probably be a Golden Retriever, and wear a scent that other dogs could recognize as authoritative, but not intimidating. She could lead group hikes to teach polite pack behavior, or work one on one with clients, like Cricket, to teach her how to stay calm when the mailman comes too close. Butterfly has blossomed so much with Cricket as her mentor, how much more could she learn from a role model with a, let’s say, healthier mental state.

A Golden Therapist. (not my picture)

A Golden Therapist. (not my picture)

My big dream is that one day schools will train therapists to specialize in dog and human family therapy. They would have easy-to-wash floors, with dog toys scattered around, and snacks. We would go there together as a family so that the therapist, and her doggy co-therapist, could see how we interact with each other: Cricket overexcited and racing around with her tug toy, and Butterfly bobbing and weaving and then running to me, and back to Cricket for approval. And the doggy therapist would do the head tilt, and the human therapist would say, “Hmm, that’s interesting.”

And then Cricket would gain confidence and start her long diatribe, with Butterfly sitting nearby, listening intently. And all of the pain and frustration would pour out of Cricket’s voice and inspire Butterfly to speak up and tell of her own grief and disappointments. And the human therapist would tilt her head to the side, and say, “I never thought of it that way.” And the dogs would finally feel heard, and understood.

Butterfly and Cricket, completely happy.

Butterfly and Cricket, completely happy.