Autism Therapy Puppies

From top left, Lady Tessa, Gawogi Gitche, Andi Grace. From bottom left, Sir Bugzie, Padda-Roo, and Guru. Dr Dwayne Kennedy and Dr Joseph Bowers work with NDIS clients via telehealth across Australia. They often include their puppies in work with people during sessions.

Animal Assisted Therapy is now a quite well documented approach in the therapy literature. Animals that engage in therapy include a wide range of creatures from horses to cows to sheep to dogs and cats, fish, dolphins, elephants, and birds. As NDIS therapists we work with dogs, and in our case the dogs we work with are smaller breeds that are well domesticated and who live with us as well. They are part of our family and part of our work.

In our approach, canine co-therapists help us and our clients in gentle ways. The easiest way to explain is to offer examples.

In one case, we often allow our clients to see the pups while we talk with them online. The client who may be an adult or a teen or a child, can see the pups playing and have a conversation with us at the same time. We’ve found this method to use quite helpful for teenagers who find it hard to open up. When this works for them, they enjoy seeing the pups and talking about them. And they also tell us about their life, how they are going, and what is happening for them. We’ve engaged this way in several cases where we have seen dramatic results. One client opened up for the first time about past abuse and trauma, and found the experience of talking while the puppies were present as a much easier process.

In another case, we bring the pup up to the screen and hold the pup while we talk with the person online. They get to know the pup and we get to know how the client responds, and the pup in this case breaks the ice. Often they are feeling at ease enough that we continue on with direct conversation. Sometimes we keep the pup with us or nearby and bring the dog back to touch base again.

This timing is important in that it gives a much needed distraction and a therapeutic-third-element which is a core method in therapy. The third element provides a reflective-point that sits between the therapist and the client. This helps people to relate. The best way to understand this concept is to think of two people having a cuppa together. The cuppa is a third element, something the couple can share. This can be a media program, a TV show, a movie, a poem or picture or painting.

We also do online clay and art therapy with people. The client collects their art supplies at their end. We use ours at this end. We share time doing an activity while connected online. This is another example of the power of the shared third element in therapy. This is a key approach also in education and skill building, where the practice of the skill is part of the third element.

Puppy or canine assisted therapy is extremely useful for people with Autism and others with sensory issues. People with Intellectual Disability get a lot from this work. Others with rare conditions or genetic disorders also gain much from this approach. People with mental health conditions sometimes find canine assisted therapy to be less stressful and more engaging. Sometimes just having a distraction is important as it lightens the load quite a bit. In grief and loss, puppies are great companions and helpers. It is amazing how much the pups have helped people across Australia.

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