By: Verne Maree
Maureen Huang, who has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Denver, is the founder and executive director of Pawsibility, an animal-assisted counselling and socio-emotional development programme.
Tell us about your “co-therapist”, Telly.
Telly is a three-year-old Labrador retriever mix.
What are the benefits of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)?
Having a friendly therapy dog in the counselling room motivates youngsters to come for sessions and to open up and talk. The presence of the therapy dog has been shown to calm people down: it brings down heart rate, blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, while raising levels of the hormone oxytocin, which is associated with positive social interaction. I have found that in interacting and working with dogs, children learn to be kind, patient, compassionate and empathetic.
How does an AAT session play out?
I often combine AAT with traditional evidence-based intervention techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy or solution-focused therapy. While I am facilitating a conversation with the child, Telly engages them and provides them with silent support and unconditional love. Often, they will be patting Telly or tossing a ball for her to fetch while they tell her how they are feeling. Sometimes, we play games or do activities that teach the child or teen social-emotional skills.
What kinds of psychological issues can be addressed in this way?
We have had good success in addressing issues relating to all sorts of issues, from anger management, anxiety and stress, abuse and trauma, behavioural issues and bullying to dealing with disabilities or special needs such as autism spectrum disorder, ADHD and so on. It can also be of help in cases of depression, grief, loss and parental divorce; and with issues of self-esteem, relationships and social or school problems.
Can you give us an example?
I worked with a 14-year-old girl from the UK, who struggled with anger management issues. Her short temper affected the way she interacted with her peers. She absolutely loved Telly, however, and treated her kindly. I got her to do some positive reinforcement dog training with Telly, which models how to treat others with kindness and respect. Dog training can be a real test of patience, and it was a great opportunity for her to work on managing frustrations, building patience and developing empathy. In time, she was able to apply those newfound skills to her interactions with her peers in everyday life.
We have also worked with quite a number of expat children and teens who found the move to Singapore difficult. As you’d expect, those who could not bring their dogs with them seem particularly drawn to Telly. They find they’re able to identify with Telly, who had to leave Colorado to come with me to Singapore 18 months ago. Her story resonates with them and they feel that she understands what they are going through. When I ask them to come up with ways that Telly can make friends here, it helps them to figure out how they can do the same for themselves. The kids think, “If Telly can do it, so can I.”
Pawsibility Animal Assisted Therapy
#08-14 The Central
6 Eu Tong Sen Street
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s 2015 issue.