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THERAPY DOGS IN MENTAL HEALTH September is Therapy Dog Awareness Month

Updated: Sep 27, 2023


"Therapy dogs can specifically play a valuable role in mental health settings. They provide emotional support, reduce stress and anxiety, and can improve overall well-being for individuals receiving therapy"



During the Pandemic, when I had way too much time on my hands, I decided to purchase a Cavoodle with the plan to train her and I as a Therapy Dog team to add to my suite of services at the clinic. Our beautiful Tilly was born in May 2021 and she joined our family in July of that same year. My thoughts were that she would be particularly helpful for children and adolescents I work with and I loved the idea of having her by my side at work, who wouldn't want a pup sharing their work day with them. Then in May 2022, when Tilly was a little over a year old, Tilly and I completed our Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) Training with the amazing Tessa-who is a therapist and a dog trainer at K9 Support in Benalla, VIC. And shortly after that Therapy Dog Tilly began her very valuable work at the clinic.


Specifically, what makes a therapy dog a therapy dog? It is not the specialised “therapy dog training” that the clinician and the dog undertake together, although this is of course important and essential to the therapy dog journey, and must be completed. A therapy dog is deemed to be a therapy dog when used in a work setting by a professional who has qualifications to deliver therapeutic supports, generally an allied health worker. It’s important to note that therapy dogs are distinct from service dogs and emotional support animals. Therapy dogs have specific roles and goals in therapeutic settings, such as providing comfort, reducing stress, promoting self regulation and boosting confidence.


Therapy dogs can specifically play a valuable role in mental health settings. They provide emotional support, they assist clients to reduce the impact of their mental health symptoms, and they can improve overall well-being for individuals receiving therapy. The presence of therapy dogs in sessions can create a calming and comforting environment, making it easier for clients to be more open. Including a therapy animal in sessions lowers cortisol levels, our stress hormone, and releases oxytocin thus resulting in a reduction of the stress response. With this reduction in stress, clients are better able to access the emotional centre of their brain and to process the difficult emotions, experiences or behaviours which may have previously blocked them from being able to engage meaningfully in therapy. Therapy dogs are specially trained to be gentle, patient, and well-behaved, and their interactions with clients can enhance the therapeutic process. When animals are included in therapy the client may have increased capacity to self-regulate.


It is important to note that therapy dogs and their handlers must be trained, certified and have appropriate insurance for this specific role to ensure safety and effectiveness in mental health settings. There are also specific guidelines to adhere to for best practice when engaging in AAT sessions for the therapy dog team and specific guidelines for AAT in Social Work. These guidelines can be found via Animal Therapies LTD, a charitable body who works to advance the understanding, acceptance & accessibility of animal-assisted services for those in need. Animal Therapies LTD also lists suitably qualified and reputable Animal Assisted Service Providers. Check out mine and Tilly's listing here along with the guidelines for best practice below


Adding Tilly to clinic services has been a wonderful success. She engages with kids both individually and in a group capacity. It is not always smooth sailing though. In hindsight, I sometimes think that Tilly was a little young when she completed her training and started her work. But then she has an amazing session with a child and I realise that she is just where she needs to be. Tilly is just over 2 years old now and she often still behaves like a cheeky puppy. She is also prone to bouts of anxiety (a result of being born and raised through puppyhood during the Pandemic lockdown). Tilly also does not like to separate from her human mum. But these factors add value to the work we do. Children love Tilly's playfulness and can empathise with her anxious disposition. Tilly’s role in working with kids both in groups and individually is generally co-regulation and to provide calm, comfort and affection. Assisting children with Anxiety and in particular Separation Anxiety. Teaching kids to play respectfully with others or how to work through problems when frustrated. Therapy Dog Tilly can also assist kids to self-regulate and with embodiment-to find a safe and comfortable place in their own bodies. Like all therapeutic services at Mindful Life Wellness this therapeutic modality is trauma focused with a massive emphasis on safety as a resource and containment. Tilly’s presence in sessions may help children feel physically and psychologically safe and loved, helping them to feel comfortable to open up and engage. Additionally Tilly is very playful and loves to engage in tricks and play games. These up regulating activities are fantastic for kids in sessions, as they builds children's self esteem, confidence and sense of mastery, making them feel empowered and a significant sense of achievement. Trick training and games also further serve to build the relationship and connection between the client and the dog.



Children in sessions often ask how did I train Tilly to be so calm. I explain that I chose a breed of dog that is calm and placid and that Tilly has been trained to be calm. But most importantly I highlight to kids that Tilly will generally match the activity of those around her. If the children are calm Tilly is calm. The clinic is a calm and relaxed environment. The children understand this expectation, as does Tilly. The children have also learnt that Tilly

prefers calm and quiet-particularly if she is in her crate. The children are also mindful that Tilly does not like loud noises, consequently they generally behave accordingly, this is kindness and empathy in action. The children are calm=Tilly is calm. Tilly is calm=the children are calm. This is co-regulation in action.


So far it has been quite the whirlwind journey implementing Tilly at the clinic. It has been so wonderful to watch her relationships with the children blossom. I have seen amazing progress with kids who have engaged in AAT sessions with Tilly and I. She has been particularly helpful with neurodiverse children, children who have experienced trauma and children with anxiety. And added to this Tilly has been a great tool for my mental health both at work and at play. She is a wonderful companion for me at the clinic and we enjoy so many adventures together away from work


September is Therapy Dog Awarenesss Month. We are super grateful to have Tilly support us in our work with little people at Mindful Life Wellness. To learn more about Tilly and her adventures head over to her Instagram page and you can also download the free Therapy Dog Tilly Social Story


As of term 4 2023, AAT sessions with Tilly are booked out. To register your interest for sessions in term 1 2024 please email kidsmindfulness@outlook.com.au


To learn more about AAT services provided by Tilly and I, head to the website homepage




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