Zen and the Art of Animal Assisted Therapy
When Kolya, a great Pyrenees, strolled through the corridors of UCLA Medical Center with his blue and gold scarf and PAC therapy dog (People-Animal Connection), he stopped the traffic. Patients, visitors, nurses, and doctors stopped to stare at his 150 pounds of calm, relaxed white. Children wondered if he was a dog or a small pony. Should they pet him or ride him?
Betty Walsh, a volunteer, kept her dog on a loose leash as she walked, allowing him to continue at his deliberate, relaxed, and rocking pace. As the couple slowly moved through the corridors of the hospital, she stopped and allowed everyone to admire, caress, and meet Kolya. It often took her 30 minutes to get to the elevator.
In contrast, my Golden Retriever and team partner, Holly Go Lightly, actively asked for responses from everyone she had met, in an energetic, “hey, notice me” style. At the time, I was a PAC program advisor teaching volunteer teams how to work effectively with psychiatric populations. This was different from a bed visit in hospital units, where the therapy dogs lie on the bed, cuddle with patients and do not need any behavioral repertoire. The patients were not sedentary in neuropsychiatric units; They needed a program.
Holly recognized and responded to more than 20 verbal commands and hand signals, and performed them for anyone I gave her guidance to. The patients developed self-confidence as she responded to all of her commands. In adolescent psychiatry, this was life changing. The young people rewarded Holly with treats or a “good girl” and a hug around her neck. They learned that we all need affection and praise and treats. When they rewarded their behavior, it led to their own success. When they thanked her, they thanked her for the good education.
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By arrangement, Betty came without Kolya to watch a demonstration session with Holly in the juvenile psychiatry. Staff and children sat in a circle and applauded whatever behavior she did when she correctly responded to my hand signals and verbal cues: roll over, talk, paw up, back, sit, sit down, stay, come, heel, and more. They watched attentively as it would soon be everyone’s turn to work with the dog.
Betty sat on the sofa and smiled during this therapeutic skill demonstration. After Holly had completed her entire program and worked with every child in the unit, Betty said (with a straight face), “My dog can’t do any of this.”
I tried to encourage them. “Oh, there are behaviors I’m sure he knows.” Betty thought for a moment and then said, “No, not really.”
“What is he doing? He’ll come if you call him, won’t he?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” she replied.
Still discouraged, I said, “Well he can sit down or lie down, can’t he?”
“If he wants,” she said again. I couldn’t believe it.
“We’ll find a program for him, don’t worry,” I assured her. Of course I still had to meet her dog.
Betty and Kolya were admitted to child psychiatry with children ages three to nine. It was now my turn to watch her session and lead her to develop the best animal-assisted therapy treatment plan. We went into a small room that was nowhere near large enough to have the kind of interaction I used with teenagers who had space to “heel” Holly all over the room.
About seven teenagers sat at a table and painted picture frames. The frames would hold every child’s photo with Kolya. A boy screamed and hit the child next to him. Another child tossed his paint bowl across the room and splashed red paint on the walls. A child was crying. A little girl hid her face with her hands. Two therapists were present to manage the children.
Betty took the big dog into the room, where it dropped onto the cool linoleum by the door. And there he was. Oh no, I thought and looked at this. How can we ever get this dog to interact with these young children if it is just lying there?
The child who threw paint now began to draw designs on the picture frame. He worked feverishly and got up to do this. The one who was crying stopped. The girl hiding her face peered between her fingers to watch the big white dog on the floor.
When the children finished painting, the therapists asked them to visit the dog. And they visited him. All seven lay on Kolya and covered him from head to tail with their bodies. And they caressed. And they cooed. And they kissed.
And Kolya? He just lay there, just like Betty had said. He didn’t do anything. But there was a relaxed, calm energy in this nothingness; there was power. He accepted the children draped all around him. My mouth fell open in astonishment. I had never seen a dog tolerate so many procedures at the same time.
He never blinked. He just lay there calm and content and let this collection of hands, feet and heads touch, rub and hug him. Within seconds, the normally excited children became as calm as the giant dog.
One of the therapists said, “This is better than medication.”
I’ve written treatment plans for all of the teams I’ve worked with. I usually made recommendations on how the volunteer could improve the visits. As I wrote my report describing the goals, strategies, and results of this session with Betty and Kolya, I described children who yelled at or hit others, or who were hyperactive or withdrawn. I wrote a line in the recommendation section at the bottom of the page that said, “I can’t make this session better.” The change in the impact of these children was dramatic. From hyperactivity and tantrums came peace and calm and love.
The Kolya experience affected me too – my need to be perfect, to do everything, to get it right, to have the perfect dog. I was able to see the great healing benefits of a dog who couldn’t do the program my way. Kolya did nothing. But just like in Buddhist philosophy, there was everything in that nothing. Because what he offered was love.
Addendum: Kolya died in 2005, but his kind heart will forever remain in our memories. Kolya was the figurehead of media coverage of the PAC program. His size and gentle nature made him irresistible.