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When children have been exposed to such horrific trauma that they’re unable to find the words to talk about it, a productive therapy session can feel a million miles away. Bring a dog or cat into the equation – or maybe a horse, rabbit or guinea pig – and things can start to look brighter. 

TheraTails, an animal-assisted psychotherapy programme, is helping young people in a way traditional methods simply cannot, by taking advantage of the unique relationship between children and their furry friends. 

Run at the SPCA by clinical psychologist Dr Laura Henagulph, equine specialist Kate Terceira and dog trainer Eileen Thorne, TheraTails has helped more than 30 people take those first few difficult steps toward dealing with their vulnerability. 

It might sound strange to anyone who thinks a therapy session involves sitting with a psychologist in a stuffy room but, according to the TheraTails team, it works. 

“We had a client who could not speak about anything whenever we asked personal questions. Literally nothing. Maybe she could give us a monosyllable,” Dr Henagulph said. “But this gives you something that you can build a relationship with. All we talk about in 20 sessions might be the dog. That’s in their comfort zone. That’s fine. The client is still going to tell you an awful lot about what they process.” 

Dogs, for example, can teach children about the importance of staying calm in stressful situations. 

“A lot of people calm dogs through shouting and physical control,” Dr Henagulph said. “But spending time with dogs teaches children that shouting can have the opposite effect. Shouting is just going to bring everybody’s energy up and make the situation intolerable. 

“What’s needed is some form of calm containment. Help everyone ground themselves – that’s true for animals and people. If we can do it in front of them, they can see it can work.” 

Ms Thorne said: “One client said she thought a dog was angry, but actually the dog was frustrated. So, this meant we could talk about how frustration can turn into anger, and what can we do in that situation.” 

Some children have been able to discuss their own destructive dynamics after watching puppies fight and make up. 

Dr Henagulph, the executive director at Seaglass Clinical Consulting, said: “At its most profound that kind of insight into how adolescents react is breaking cycles of violence that perhaps have been there for generations. People sometimes use physical force or intense anger to express their emotions to get what they need. We are saying no, take it down, we can get what we need by working with you and using these techniques instead.” 

Humans have long used animals to help their emotions, but TheraTails goes beyond simple pet therapy by incorporating expertise from psychodynamic theories and forensic psychology. When a child is referred to the service, they start with a session with the psychologist and are then assigned to the animal-assisted psychotherapy that suits them best, usually a dog or a horse. 

Dr Henagulph said: “Sometimes the child can arrive at the session quite disturbed. The parent might say they have had a really bad hour. Pretty much inevitably by the time they leave they feel much better and can go forward into the school day or evening. 

“A couple of parents have reflected to us that the effect on the child has been so profound it’s rippled into the rest of the family and they all feel calmer as a result.” 

But, how does it work? 

“The trauma might be so horrific a child might not have the words to say what’s happened to them,” Dr Henagulph said. “These things tend to get embodied. They are held internally and get expressed as behaviour such as anger, inattention or dissociation. Children can seem very preoccupied, or don’t listen, or have eating disorders, anxiety issues or be obsessive. 

“If you have disorders that are held within the body, words can be a poor instrument. They can become overwhelmed and might hyperventilate or start dissociating. But they can put their hands on a horse, be on their knees in the hay and take in all the smells. All this grounding I might do in a therapy room is 100 times more effective out in the open. They can go up to the horse, put their cheek up against the horse and feel calm. With our guidance, they recognise when they feel the dissociation and learn to pay attention to themselves.” 

Horses are known for their calm nature and tendency to mirror human behaviour, but different animals perform different roles depending on the client’s mood. 

Ms Thorne said: “Cats tend to keep their distance and aren’t very pushy, but dogs usually want more interaction and you can have more of a conversation with them.” 

Dr Henagulph added: “Sometimes we know if one of our clients says they just want to go with the cat today, they are asking for a very quiet, reflective session, where they are not saying very much.” 

Children also know animals cannot lie and do not make judgments. 

Ms Terceira said: “It’s all in the moment. Animals are in the moment. That’s especially important for those clients not trusting the world generally. It shows we are not just trying to make this about ‘happily ever after’.” 

Sometimes a horse might not want to spend time with a child, but even this can help the youngster learn how to cope with rejection. 

“They start to understand it’s not about somebody ‘hating’ them for any reason,” Dr Henagulph said. “It’s not personal. It’s not about me. It’s about what happens in the world from moment to moment.” 

For children with ADHD, the setting itself can provide comfort – even without the animals. 

“They come to the stables and it’s just brilliant,” Dr Henagulph said. “They have got wide open space, they have got hay, buckets of poo, fields, huge horses. Sometimes they just want to jump around with the huge pile of hay!” 

For more information on TheraTails, call the SPCA on 236-7333 or e-mail [email protected] 

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