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Canine therapy can help improve mental health

August 23, 2011

Rebecca Sorg-Myers, a behavioral health therapist at Cen-Clear Behavioral Health, offers Canine-Assisted Therapy in a team effort with her dog, Emma. Photo by Victoria Stanish.

A number of studies have shown that having a pet can help lower a person's stress and improve their mental health outlook. One form of therapy that has been in existence for some time, but is new to the area, uses dogs in a therapeutic setting to assist clients in achieving mental health goals.
Canine-Assisted Therapy is a specialized outpatient program for children, adults and families in which a dog is an integral part of the treatment process. The therapy is offered at Cen-Clear Behavioral Health on South Michael Road in St. Marys, and Mark Wendel, director of behavioral health services at Cen-Clear, said as far as he knows, the agency is the first and only to offer the treatment in the Elk/Cameron County regions.
"We're not aware of any other [agency] in the local area that is doing it," Wendel said, adding that although Cen-Clear has been serving Elk and Cameron counties for about six years, Canine-Assisted Therapy was added to the facility's behavioral health services only recently.
Rebecca Sorg-Myers, a behavioral health therapist at Cen-Clear, works as a team in Canine-Assisted Therapy sessions with Emma, her 2 1/2-year-old registered therapy English bulldog. Clients generally attend one-hour sessions once a week.
"I've always been interested in animals, specifically dogs. We're always looking toward different alternative methods of therapy to offer different options to our clients," Sorg-Myers said.
She explained that Canine-Assisted Therapy is still goal-based and intervention-directed like more traditional therapy; the therapist still directs and documents the session and engages in discussion with the client. The presence of Emma, however, provides more focus on interaction and touch, and helps create an emotional safety zone and a comfort level for clients. Sorg-Myers said the dog "works as a good buffer" for people who are agitated, anxious or reluctant to discuss their thoughts and feelings with another person, and helps to develop a good rapport between client and caregiver.
"Often individuals, particularly children, project their feelings and experiences onto an animal. This (Emma) changes the environment," Sorg-Myers said. "People engage more quickly. They're wiling to open up sooner. I've seen results in one to two sessions that would normally take about five.
"You want the environment to be conducive to treatment. When they (clients) see her, they smile. They open up. It just puts them in a better mood."
She said although all clients could realize benefits through Canine-Assisted Therapy, it is best-suited for children and adults who have experienced abuse, trauma, loss or grief, or have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), poor self-esteem or self-image, anxiety or depression.
Sorg-Myers and Wendel said having a dog present during a therapy session can help the client in several ways, including decreasing heart rate and blood pressure; strengthening feelings of acceptance and providing opportunities for empathy and nurturing; and increasing mental stimulation and motivation.
"Consumers with behavioral health concerns or low self-esteem have more of an internal focus," Sorg-Meyers said. "Canine-Assisted Therapy helps them focus on the environment."
According to Sorg-Myers, dogs are selected for Canine-Assisted Therapy programs based on their temperament and personalities. Emma has received obedience training and has been certified through the American Kennel Club as a Canine Good Citizen and a registered therapy dog through Keystone Pet Enhanced Services. Sorg-Myers and Emma do individual therapy and family sessions at Cen-Clear's offices, but do not go to people's homes for the safety of all involved.
"In our program, we have developed and implemented policies and procedures to ensure the safety of both the consumer and the animal," Sorg-Myers said.
Sorg-Myers was quick to explain that although Emma has received extensive training, she is not considered a service dog, which is used to assist people with disabilities with daily living activities. Emma was specifically trained to be part of Canine-Assisted Therapy, including assessment by a dog trainer and desensitization to smells, sounds and touch to accommodate interacting with many different people regularly.
"She's not just any dog. This dog is assessed. She's specially trained to do this," Sorg-Myers said.
As both Emma's handler and owner, Sorg-Myers put in her own time and expense for the dog's training. She recently got a female golden retriever puppy named Ellie, which she also plans to enroll in training to become a Canine-Assisted Therapy dog. Area residents who wish to learn more about Canine-Assisted Therapy may call 1-877-341-5845.

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