Well it’s been a couple of weeks but I’ve finally been able to sit down and tell you all about Part Deux of our (mine and Flossie’s) big adventure at our Practical Therapy Dog Training being run by the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) at The Dog’s Trust HQ near Uxbridge. For those of you who are new to our blog, please see our previous post, “Exciting Times developing with HumAnima’s Therapy Dog, Flossie“. This time round we did things…. the hard way…. It was a Bank Holiday weekend and so public transport options left a lot to be desired. So we stayed with a friend in Hertfordshire and prior to our training day, thoroughly wore Flossie out with a very healthy walk/ run/ ball throwing session in the park, fields and one of her favourite places, the woodland. Suffice to say, she was a pooped pooch. We had a very early start to get from Hertfordshire to The Dog’s Trust but we made it thanks to the kindness of my friend giving us a lift. Now Flossie is very familiar with our friend’s car and loves (and anticipates) the forthcoming adventures with relish (please forgive my anthropomorphism!). However, she is not so keen on saying “Goodbye” and parting ways with our friend as she has a very strong attachment to said friend. Flossie was, hmm… decidedly surprised to find our friend gone, and us landed in a hall with a healthy number of other four-leggeds and two-leggeds. After some initial sulking, during which we were introduced to day 2, Flossie was happy enough to get on with it and “strutt her stuff”. We started with (what I had quite dreaded) our homework. On the first day we had been taught some techniques and ideas for target training. Target training, as the name suggests, works on the principle of teaching the dog (or other animals) to use a particular part of their body to make contact with an item or object. Flossie has already done some minimal target training where she touches my hand with her nose. She is also capable of touching her paw to my foot.

Our homework had been to learn “Chin, chin”. Using a face cloth, treats and our trusty clicker we managed quite nicely to get Flossie to lay her chin on the face cloth in different places. Now you may be wondering how this is relevant to therapy. If we condition Flossie to perform “Chin, chin” whenever and wherever she see’s the facecloth, this can be used as a nice greeting for service users. For example, if I place the face cloth on a client’s knee and say “Chin, chin”, Flossie can then place her chin on the washcloth and gaze up adoringly at the service user. A gentle “Hello!” if you like. This is very important as not all service users are happy or able to welcome a bouncy, bounding, enthusiastic dog into their arms! Manners, manners! In short… Flossie got an A* for her homework.

"Chin, chin!"

The day was more than a little full of challenges (that we were both very up for!) as activities we later took part in would try to establish what Flossie’s limits were and would stretch my existing training abilities! But there’s nothing like an opportunity to learn something new! One of the very relevant activities we set to training Flossie was trying to teach her to look at another person or “Say Hello”. We worked with another person and together we tried to figure out the best way to train this. No easy feat I can tell you. I worked with Jo-Ann and one of the first things we very quickly realised was that it was impossible for me to tell when Flossie was making eye contact with the other person. Therefore, Jo-Ann agreed to indicate with a “good” every time she made exact eye contact and I would instantly click and treat. This took some working out on Flossie’s part as well as it wasn’t easy trying to communicate to her what it was we wanted her to do. No amount of me flapping or indicating or talking “LOUDLY AND CLEARLY” could transcend the human-dog communication barrier. A shame but none-the-less a reality! I realise now there might have been other, better ways of doing this. Jo-Ann is familiar with dog training and would have been quite able to use the clicker to indicate when she and Flossie were making eye-contact. I could have simply given the command and subsequently the reward. The important thing was that Flossie realise that she is not to look at me but the other person. Quite an unusual task. The trainers delivering the session had over the period of our course been able to get to know and suss out our dogs personalities a little and their quirks, likes and dislikes more or less. We were now faced with mock scenarios whereby Vanessa would play a service user and Nina would whisper to her the condition she might be suffering from that Vanessa had to then act out for each individual dog and their handler. At one point, Vanessa played  a service user in a wheelchair who had suffered a stroke and had left side paralysis. (Note that none of us knew at the beginning of the scenario, which condition Vanessa might have and the potential features of that condition) She sometimes played quite a shy and withdrawn and sometimes a more outgoing and expressive service user. This all depended on what the trainers felt the dogs could cope with and what might push them that little bit further.

Now I am pretty confident that Flossie is bomb proof. That said, she does have her quirks and obvious her own limitations and I need to know where to draw the line when potentially putting her into a situation that she might not appreciate or may even dislike. I don’t want her to become aggressive so it is important I do my best to understand her and know when enough is enough. Flossie’s “challenge” was a service user who was in a wheelchair but was VERY insistent that they wanted to stroke her. All over. Non stop. In her face. Holding her tail. Tugging lightly. Now I know I certainly wouldn’t be happy with this kind of approach but when faced with it for the first time you can end up pretty speechless and a little flabbergasted (shocked for those of you from across the Pond;)). I tried to keep my cool and stay calm as I was acutely aware that Flossie may indeed take her cues from me. Thankfully, she was beyond golden and listened to me, focused on me and did as I asked – I asked her to get on her mat and do a down (just out of reach). Now this didn’t stop the client from trying to reach Flossie but it made it a little harder. It’s important to note that this could be dangerous for the person in the wheelchair as had she continued to lean out she could have toppled from the chair. However, this being a mock scenario, as long as we took it all into consideration that was enough on this occasion.

Pushing the boundaries

At any time Flossie could have quite easily decided that enough was enough by either getting up or using doggy body language or behaviour. It was difficult for me to pick up too much as there was so much going on in such a short amount of time but she didn’t growl, stare, bark or even try to bite. She just focused on me. Whilst I walked away from this activity a little shocked I was also immensely proud of my little girl. She’d been put in a trying situation and had reacted well. This was perhaps a questionable way of testing Flossie’s boundaries but it was within as safe an environment as possible, Flossie wasn’t hurt and the “client” was in fact a very experienced dog trainer and behaviourist and so was able to read Flossie’s body language and reaction probably better than myself. Had I not been entirely confident with the situation I would not have put Flossie through it. Which bring me to point out that not all service users are suitable for Animal Assisted Therapy. Whilst some may not wish to interact with a therapy dog, may have a phobia, or allergy others may not have an appropriate attitude or approach to interacting with the animal. It is my responsibility to ensure that not only am I safe and the client safe in our counselling sessions, I must also make sure that the therapy animals are safe. If I feel that somebody may be behaving inappropriately within a counselling session in which Flossie is present, then I will address the matter having taken Flossie out of the situation. At the end of the day she is not only my co-therapist and my companion but a sentient being that is able to think and feel.

If you have any questions about counselling with HumAnima CIC and Animal Assisted Therapy (A.A.T.) please feel free to contact Kathryn on 07971933221 or email her at [email protected]