A Therapy Dog Can Be Your Relationship’s Best Friend

//A Therapy Dog Can Be Your Relationship’s Best Friend

Hi there and welcome to The Couples Expert Podcast.  This is Stuart Fensterheim, the Couples Expert.  Today is January the 10th and I am here with all of you once again on our weekly podcast.  You know, one of the things I was thinking about is how nervous I get whenever I do these podcasts.  And you would think after approximately 16,000 downloads you’d stop – I’d stop being nervous.  But you know, one of the things I think it is that similar to when I was involved in community theater, you’re never as good as your last episode.  So one of the things that happens is I think about all of you coming to my podcast every week to try to get some information on being close and connected, and I really want to do a good job for all of you.

So thank you again for joining me, and today I’m excited to do a couple of things.  One is to announce to you a free webinar that Dr. Carlos Todd and I are doing this Wednesday, January 13th on couple’s conflict.  It’s going to be an incredible experience for those of you having some struggles with conflict in your marriage and in your relationship and really helping you get some very specific tools on how to look at the conflict a little differently, and maybe not get so down about it but really learn about that conflict itself is not a problem.  It’s the lack of repair that becomes the problem.  And we’re going to give you some real specific ways to really improve some of that.

I also want to introduce Laurie Eschenbrenner.  Laurie is a new counselor that’s joined the Couples Expert, and I wanted to introduce her.  She’s a great addition.  She and I are working together now to be much more responsive to the calls that are coming in as well as some of the free consults that we offer.  As you know, we offer a free 30-minute telephone consult and she is one more person that can help fill those calls and help all of you really understand some of the issues that come up in your relationship and ways to improve that.  And she’s going to come on this podcast in the near future so you can get to know her directly but she is really a wonderful addition to my practice and is really helping me assist all of you in having those kinds of relationships that you’re looking for, the ones where you really feel important and secure in the relationship.

So what are we going to do today?  Today I’m excited to – actually I find this so appealing to do this podcast because I’m going to be talking about one of the things that bring the most joy to me, and that’s my therapy dog Ollie.  Ollie has been with me a number of years now, and he is an integral part of the marriage counseling and the relationship counseling that I do.  For those of you that have been here to my Scottsdale office, you know I have a dog bed.  As soon as you walk in the door, you can’t miss it, it’s huge, and his bone is sitting there. Even when he doesn’t join me in sessions, he is there.

And what I’m going to talk about today are really the benefits that I have found in bringing an animal into my practice and working with the clients alongside me.  There’s lots of confusion out there between what is animal-assisted therapy and what is just playing with the dog, and they’re two very different things. I was about to say they’re two very different animals.  But the reality is people confuse it.  So we’re going to talk a lot about that, and I’m going to talk very specifically about how I’m using my dog, therapy dog, Ollie in my practice.  So to help all of you really understand how beneficial animals really are to your relationship, to your marriage, to your self-esteem, and that without a dog in your life, and I’m biased about this obviously, without a dog in your life, your world is darker and not as fulfilling.

Now some people would tell you they’re just a pain, and there’s some truth to that.  There is a pain that comes with having to walk your dog and feed your dog and do all those things, but when you look at the benefits, and we’re going to be talking a lot about those today, there isn’t anything that can give you more joy and more pleasure than having that friend alongside you.  So we’ll be talking about that.

Before I move on with this podcast, I realized I had forgotten to mention something.  With the free webinar that Dr. Todd and I are doing, this recording is likely going to be released after we’ve done that.  So you’re going to go, “Wait a minute, you’re telling me it’s January 13th and today is not January 13, sorry to pass.  But this is a free webinar that we’re recording, and you will be able to have access to that recording.  The only thing obviously is it won’t be able to be presented live with live questions, but he and I have made a commitment that you can send us an email at our email addresses; mine is Stuart@thecouplesexpertscottsdale.com and his is ctodd@conflictcoaching.com.

So let’s get started talking about therapy dogs, animal-assisted therapy, dogs and service dogs.  But wait a minute, what do I hear?  (dog bark) Oh, that’s only Ollie saying he’s hungry.  One of the things in the essential costs of having a therapy dog is that I have to keep a collection of dog treats, and sometimes what’s humorous about this is when I have my therapy dog there, it gets a little bit loud because he’s chewing his chewies and his bones as I’m trying to talk with the folks about their relationship.  This however has never been an issue for them.  It’s more of an issue for me feeling badly for my couples.

ollieSo I want to let you know that having a therapy dog is such a bonding experience for the clients, for yourself, for you as a relationship partner, and I want to really focus on the positives that come with this.  There are some challenges in working with a couple and with a therapy dog.  Number one is you need to be really sensitive to allergies, and as a couple, one of the things you two need to do if you’re seeing a therapist that has a therapy dog is inform the therapist on the frontend whether there are any allergies or fears.  The fear is an interesting dilemma because one of the things that I have found in my work with couples, as well as my work with individuals or children, is that those people who have phobias about dogs or have been attacked by a dog previously and have some posttraumatic stress symptoms with a dog, when they meet Ollie, and Ollie, for those of you who don’t know, is an eight-year old yellow Labrador retriever.  He has a temperament that is beyond belief.  He had been kicked, his hair has been pulled, he had done – plenty of things have been done to him by young children that are unbelievable and his temperament is such that he just flaps it off, no pun intended, and basically just goes about his business.

He is the most even tempered dog that I’ve ever met, and that is one of the testaments to him and why I’ve chosen him as a therapy dog.  Ollie’s history is such that my wife and I, we foster for a rescue called Desert Lab Retriever, and what the organization is about is they take in dogs all over the Phoenix area who were in shelters or at the pound or on a kill list, and we salvage the dogs and they are then brought into someone’s home, like my mine and my wife’s, and our job is to find an adoptive home.  It is a very rewarding thing for my wife and I and we love doing it. It’s one of the things that really has connected the two of us, and I did a blog on that awhile back, so if you want to take a look at that you’re welcome to.  It’s on my blog on my website which is www.thecouplesexpertscottsdale.com.

7648244988_35bf08a506_bSo getting back to the therapy dog and Ollie, Ollie is just an incredible addition to my office, and I think the first thing we need to do is make a distinction between three classifications of dogs.  We have service animals that most people are very familiar with. Those are the ones that are there for the blind or deaf or someone who has seizures.  Now these are the dogs that when you walk around the city and you see them with their vests on and you go up and you’re about to pet them, you see a big sign that says ‘Please do not pet me’ because they’re working.  That is probably the biggest difference between a service animal and a non-service animal because whether it’s a dog that is an emotional support animal or an animal who is involved with animal-assisted therapy, those signs that should be there say ‘Please pet me’ because the touch of the dog and your involvement with it is the whole point of this idea.  So you do want to pet those.  So if it’s a service animal, you never want to pet, and the others you definitely want to pet. You want to touch;, you want to play; you want to do everything that you can. So if you see a dog with a vest on and it says either pet partners or therapy dog, it is okay to do that.

But one of the things about having a therapy dog or an animal-assisted therapy dog in a counseling setting is the touch is3774614823_584d636f05_z really part of it.  It has a calming influence.  It lowers the blood pressure.  It allows you to really feel good about who you are and about your interaction with the animals.  So what we want to do is really understanding that there are three different kinds of animals, service dogs, emotional support dogs and lastly, and the one that I’m mostly involved with is animal-assisted therapy dogs.  All three of those are specifically trained dogs for different purposes.

My dog Ollie is trained as an animal-assisted therapy through an organization called Pet Partners.  Pet Partners is an organization that gives a certification.  This is not a dog that just looks good; it smells good; it acts well.  It has to go through a specific training.  That training is very intensive and the dog has to have the mannerisms to handle the training, not only the training, but also the involvement and the exercises that come with the tests that you do, and it’s a test that is renewed every year or two depending on the certification, and it’s actually a fun test but your dog has to have the ability to pass it, and what happens is during the test, they put in front of you different situations.  So I go into a ring, it’s literally you go into a building and the ring is there, and what they have set up already are people and objects that your dog has to maneuver.  What that means is one of the first parts of the test is to be able to greet another animal and another human.  And the humans need to be able to shake hands and do that without the dogs going and playing and doing anything.

The other thing that they will always test you on is all the basic commands: sit, stay, come, etc. but then if you’re interested in having a higher level and not just an animal, emotional support dog, what they do is they set up situations.  For instance, they put Ollie in a situation where there was a wheelchair.  There was a guy with a cane.  There was an elderly gentleman who is pretending to have some dementia, and he was bumping into Ollie, and he was kicking Ollie, and he was pulling at Ollie, and Ollie needed to be able to do well and not react and get aggressive or get out of hand.  The other thing, and this was probably the hardest one and the one that I was the most nervous about, was to be able to leave something.  Meaning you want to have a command that says leave it.  And basically no matter what it is on the ground, they don’t go near it and what I was really stressed about was they would put food because for those of you that have Labrador retrievers, they are obsessed with food, and that is part of why they are so attentive because they really want food.  My wife and I jokingly say Ollie likes me more than her sometimes only because I give him more treats than she does, and that’s not really true because one of the things she does, which is the cutest thing in the world, is when she comes home, she sings to him and he sings back.  And if you think I’m kidding, listen to this clip of my wife and Ollie having a sing along.

Okay, one of the things about the counseling piece with Ollie and what’s so exciting for me in being able to bring him to work with me and know that my best friend is there with me and that we have provided for him what we call through the fostering a forever home, and that means Ollie was a dog that was found on the streets of Chandler, Arizona, by the way, with a buddy of his who is a German Shepherd, and the two of them were basically wandering the streets causing ruckus, and the police saw them, picked them up, and brought them to the pound, and then my organization found Ollie.  I then trained him to be a therapy dog, and now I’m using him quite often in my office with the couples. But before I did that, I used Ollie in a setting where I worked as a home-based counselor in the hill of an Indian reservation.

There I worked mostly with children and families, and one of the things that was really helpful particularly kids on the native American reservations who don’t really have a lot of experience with secure, connected relationships absolutely were able to bond with Ollie, and it was an amazing transformation that I would see with these kids where they began to work with me and Ollie and that together we would develop a specific treatment plan because one of the unique differences about an emotional support dog and an animal-assisted therapy dog is that they are part of the treatment plan.  What that means is as a therapist, when we develop goals for counseling, we have what’s called the treatment plans.  So let’s say our treatment plan is to cope more effectively with getting along with parents or other children or as a couple, improving your communication with each other.  Ollie is a direct part of the reason that this occurs, and we have specific interventions that we will do to help you accomplish that goal using Ollie as one of the parts of the intervention.

So an animal-assisted therapy dog is a counselor.  He is a part of the treatment team and is being used more and more in different settings in that way, but one the things that I would find with Ollie particularly with some of the kids that had physical challenges who would sort of give up easily and not try as hard as they might to do their physical therapy, when I would walk into the room with Ollie, and this is in the hospital setting because we also did that, the kids would more often than not get up and start pushing themselves where they can get to Ollie.  And Ollie allowed them in good spirits to be able to do that.  Kids or adults that are dealing with chronic pain tend to try more and complain less when Ollie is around.

497904222_c98eaa985c_zMy wife and I have this ongoing joke that most of the clients that I worked with Ollie as couples or individuals come to my office more willingly because of Ollie, because what they get excited about is not seeing me because I’m just a therapist, but Ollie as a yellow lab who is lovable, who takes their treats, who gives them affection, who they can touch and prod and hug is something that they are excited about, and my wife says I need to give him a cut of the pay and I do actually.  So a little part of my fee goes to and his reward. Most days it’s a McDonald’s ice cream treat.  We go to McDonald’s, and he gets a cone and I actually have some video tape.  I don’t know if I’m going to be able to find it to post it with the show notes, but I will if I can of him devouring a McDonald’s ice cream.

I want to talk about that all of these that I’m talking about are not just my hunches.  This is research-oriented information that we now have.  And what we know is that a dog can bring us so much joy and help us feel good in life.  The more we’re around animals, the more positive people become.  Being around animals is so comforting, and it helps with all sorts of emotional feeling, feelings of loneliness, feelings of isolation, feelings of depression and as we can imagine, being in a relationship that’s disconnected, there’s nothing more isolating, there’s nothing more lonely, and there’s nothing more depressing.  So having an animal there makes your environment more optimistic so that you look and feel better because you know life is better and interacting – for those of you that have never done this, if you’re sort of in a sad, depressed place and you have a dog, start having a conversation with your dog.  Some people when they see me and Ollie really see and go, they have this weird look on their face because I absolutely have conversations with him, and he and I interact.

And one of the feedbacks that I got from Pet Partners who did my testing with Ollie was they saw that, and that 19007877609_59cbb286a0_zalone was part of what had them pass us because they saw that I was treating him as a member of my family, and dogs are definitely members of your family.  And one of the advantages of therapy dogs for those that have been involved with people that not only we talked a little bit ago about fear of dogs but animal cruelty who don’t understand that being cruel to an animal, the problems that that suggests, number one and number two, how wrong that is.  Ollie is a good one to help people recognize because they bond with him, and then they can begin to question their own attitudes about animals and what that means, and also what’s good about dog and animal-assisted therapy is if someone is being mean to Ollie, a child, he gives him a quick bark and they know that it’s immediate consequence, and that’s part of what animal-assisted therapy is about is if in our treatment plan we have setting limits, Ollie helps with that.

So interacting with dogs brings up what we humorously call our cuddle hormones, and for those of you who know that I’m emotionally-focused therapist know that in emotionally-focused therapy, we talk a lot about those cuddle hormones and that bonding connection with another human being and I’m going to throw in not only with another human being but also with an animal. There is nothing more fulfilling and relaxing and it brings you such a calming effect.  Now think about this: if you and your partner are fighting all the time, and there’s all of this hostility and negativity and then you’re around a calming influence, you’re more apt to be responsive, you’re more apt to listen, and what we do in the office is absolutely that.  That when couples in my office are fighting, Ollie clearly gets somewhat uncomfortable and he lets them know by that, by walking away from them or by going up to them and giving one or the other a kiss that there’s something wrong going on here and the environment is tense and it sends that message to couples and sometimes just that alone, just that message is all that it takes.  I don’t have to say anything because Ollie did it for me, and he is instructed that in those situations that’s what he needs to do, and he does a good job.

Petting a dog, just the act of petting the dog is an automatic relaxation response that can reduce, for some people, the amount of medicine that people have to take or anti-depressants.  Animals help all of us become more empathetic, and what else are we looking for with couples but being able to understand each other’s triggers and helping each other really get vulnerable because with emotionally-focused therapy, that’s what I do. I help couples get vulnerable.  And by that vulnerability and connecting at that vulnerable attachment-need place, couples feel more in love and more secure with each other.  Ollie helps people get to a vulnerable place because the environment is safer with him there.  And your dog, your animal companion allows you to be more authentic.  I see people who are guarded with their partners all the time but open up with Ollie.  And one of the questions I ask people quite often when their partner and them are having these challenges is “what are you like with your children?” Because I hear people, especially men, saying that they’re not expressive; they don’t talk about their feelings.  In my experience with them typically, it has been that they are talking about their feelings; they are being expressive; their partner though is not hearing it.  And then I see them interacting with Ollie, and they’re expressive, and they’re affectionate, and their wife or husband are seeing the other as cold, not empathetic, not expressive but yet they’re doing it with Ollie, why?  Because they feel safe.  So then we can have that other dialogue that says we need to establish emotional safety between the two of you because if we do that, you will be expressive; you will be vulnerable, and you will connect on that level.

The other thing that Ollie does with the couples that I work with is he encourages couples to interact with other another.  There are so many couples that just don’t have fun together and don’t even have any kind of interaction.  What Ollie does is, because he likes to play at times, he’s not player as I said but he does like to play at times.  That interaction causes couples to interact with one another about throwing the ball, about picking it up, about going to the park.  You know, one of the more bonding times my wife and I have is when we go and take Ollie for a walk, and it gives us that 20 minutes or so of time alone, away from the house, away from the phone, away from the busyness of life, and we just can share that very calm experience of taking Ollie for a walk, and it’s fun, and we have lots to talk about because of Ollie.

I do believe that half of couple’s conflicts are about not taking the time to just really focus on the two of you, and having a dog both at home and in the therapy sessions allows couples to do that, to really take a look at what’s important, and to really understand that connecting with your animal, connecting with your wife, connecting with your children makes the world feel better, has you feeling more alive in good spirits and feeling like your world is just okay, and that you know that things are going to work out because you have important people, important animals in your life, and that the commitment you have to them and the commitment that you have to yourself and to your partner is to be connected, to feel important, to feel like the two of you are in this world together and you’re not alone, and there’s nothing more rewarding than that. And having a dog as my colleague, as my best friend, with me helping couples do that, there’s not a better feeling than that.

So I thank all of you.  I wish you well.  Thank you for joining me again this week, and next week will be a very exciting podcast here on The Couples Expert where we’re going to have Dr. Susan Johnson, emotionally-focused therapy, the writer of the Hold Me Tight books is going to join us and what we’re going to do is I’m going to ask her all the questions that I think all of you want to know, and if you have any questions you’d like me to ask her, please send me an email at Stuart@thecouplesexpertscottsdale.com, and I’ll do my best to add those as well, and we’re all going to learn a lot from Dr. Johnson on how to have those secure, close emotional relationships.  Take care and I’ll see you next time.  Bye-bye.






About the Author:

Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW helps couples to overcome the disconnection in their relationships. As an author, blogger and podcaster, Stuart has helped couples around the world to experience a unique relationship in which they can feel special and important, confident in knowing they are loved deeply and that their presence matters. The Couples Expert Podcast consists of weekly provocative conversations offering the perspectives and insight of experts from a variety of relationship related fields. Stuart also offers daily relationship video tips on The Couples Expert YouTube channel and by subscription in Stuart's Daily Notes. Stuart is happily married and a devoted father of 2 daughters. His office practice serves the greater Phoenix, Arizona area including the cities of Scottsdale, Chandler, Tempe, and Mesa.

One Comment

  1. […] You can download a complete, word-for-word transcript of this episode here. […]

Leave A Comment