When counselor Prairie Conlon is helping clients relax, she often introduces them to Tobias. It’s not that Tobias knows the right thing to say — in fact, he doesn’t say anything– but he has big brown eyes, soft fur and a knack for making clients feel unconditionally accepted. Tobias, Conlon’s giant schnauzer, is a therapy dog.
“If I’m doing in-office therapy, Tobias is sitting there with us. If we go out to walk the trails during a session, Tobias tags along. The simple act of petting a dog or taking a walk with a dog, really helps clients open up and connect their minds and bodies,” says Conlon.
Conlon often combines animal-assisted therapy with Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART), a rapid, evidence-based treatment for PTSD, trauma, anxiety and other mental health concerns. Spending time with Tobias, or a horse trained in equine-assisted therapy, helps clients relax and be more receptive to ART.
“Spending time with animals pulls the focus away from daily distractions,” says Conlon, clinical director of CertaPet. “Animals are very sensitive to how people are acting. There’s one horse that I’ve been working with for 15 years and I see how she reacts differently to each person.”
Master ART clinician Dr. Diego Hernandez also uses animal-assisted therapy, He is trained in Equine assisted Psychotherapy though Eagala. Dr. Hernandez works extensively with veterans and has provided counseling services at retreat programs for veterans with PTSD, including Special Operations Golf Retreat, Veterans Alternative, Lone Survivor, Warrior Mission at Ease SOF Missions, H.O.O.A.H., and the Peace at Home Project.
“Horses are herd animals. They live in groups and do everything together to be part of that family. They will work with us to create a group but first, you have to establish a relationship with them,” says Hernandez. “In our programs, there’s an emphasis on communication and training with the horse. All these activities help people make a strong connection with these horses that helps Veterans re-regulate their nervous systems. It allows them to heal emotionally.”
Animal-assisted therapy and ART are complementary treatments, Dr. Hernandez says. Working with animals often brings up old memories that clients can then work through in an ART session.
“Like animal-assisted therapy, ART helps people re-regulate their nervous systems,” says Dr. Hernandez. “That’s one of the hardest changes for members of the military transitioning back to civilian life. The nervous system has been conditioned to go to war and it has been conditioned by war. How the nervous system learned to operate in Fallujah does not help one navigate Walmart. But ART can help people reset.”
Brian Anderson, the founder and CEO of Veterans Alternative, is often accompanied by his service dog, Hero, when he leads retreats with veterans. Anderson, a former Green Beret, dealt with PTSD for years before finally finding relief with ART. Hero has his own Facebook page, where he is often shown cuddling with his feline siblings. But Hero has important work to do as well.
Hero, along with the service dog of another Veterans Alternative staffer, often accompanies those who take part in the program’s retreats. Many of the veterans bring their own service dogs as well.
Anderson said that Hero often accompanies him when he receives ART. “When Hero goes inside the counseling room with me, his body or his head is lying on top of my feet,” he says. “It brings that the calming effect you need to be open to ART.”
To find an ART-certified clinician in your area, visit ART International’s directory of providers.