NORTH LIBERTY — Sometimes, the best comforts have four legs and a tail.
Local mental health provider Psychiatric Associates has been expanding a service in the past year that includes some furry therapists.
Three therapists at Psychiatric Associates’ office in North Liberty have certified their pet dogs to provide animal-assisted therapy, a type of complementary therapy that involves animals as a form of treatment. The goal is to help reduce stress and anxiety in clients and otherwise offer a comforting presence during counseling sessions.
“Dogs and many animals, they can just interact with people in a way that other humans can’t,” said Penny Clark, a Psychiatric Associates therapist who offers animal-assisted therapy.
The therapy is offered in conjunction with a traditional counseling session. The dogs sit in the office during appointments, available for clients to pet and interact with as they talk with the therapists.
Clark was the first therapist to certify her own pet dog — a Rottweiler named Gypsy — for animal-assisted therapy about a year and a half ago, she said.
Since then, two other therapists at Psychiatric Associates have certified their dogs: Carmen Tillman with her Labrador mix named Luna and Tina Issa with her German Shepard named Tonks.
Psychiatric Associates offers counseling services for a range of mental health conditions that include grief, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, among others.
Tillman said her dog Luna and the other dogs are just certified as therapy animals, and aren’t qualified beyond their office setting.
Animal-assisted therapy can take place in a variety of settings, including in hospitals, nursing homes and schools. Dogs are the primary animals used in these programs for people with different physical and emotional needs, according to an article in Psychology Today.
For the most part, Issa said the dogs help their clients relax and get more comfortable during the appointments.
“It’s easier to open up with Tonks in the room,” she said. “It’s like the dogs are an icebreaker.”
Tillman agreed, adding that if clients can’t talk about anything else, they’re always able to talk about the dog.
“It creates a fun and welcoming environment people wouldn’t expect,” Tillman said. “It eases the anxiety for these sessions.”
Once that tension is broken, Issa found that her German Shepard helps decrease stress in a way that allows her clients to talk about troubling subjects without reliving a negative experience. This helps Issa determine the root issue faster, which in turn can lead to improvement for the client more quickly, she said.
While the service doesn’t work for everyone, the therapists said the dogs are popular with their clients. They plan to continue offering animal-assisted therapy for the foreseeable future.
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“People can relate to dogs sometimes better than people and trust dogs sometimes better than people because they will unconditionally accept you,” Clark said. “They’re not going to tell your secrets.”
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