Therapy that Leaves a Lasting Paw-print

September 6, 2017

Sasha works with children in a therapeutic setting here at ChildSavers. She is patient and kind, easy to approach, and calming. Many of our children have found comfort in just sitting next to her. She is a good listener and she cares about the work that she does.

Sasha’s work is important because she helps children overcome their fears and heal. However, while Sasha is very good at her job, she is not a therapist, counselor, or social worker. Sasha is a therapy dog!

How Sasha Became a Therapy Dog

Jan Williamson, a Mental Health Clinician at ChildSavers, adopted Sasha in 2008; she was just one year old. Jan is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Registered Play Therapist. Before working with Jan, Sasha had no one.

One night a Chow Chow and Shiba Inu mix puppy was tied to the door of the Humane Society in Culpeper, VA. The Human Society searched for her owner to no avail. Instead, she found a place in the Department of Corrections Pen-Pal Program in Lunenburg Correctional Center. This special program places rescue dogs with incarcerated adults. They are together all the time and the inmate trains the dog for basic obedience, manners, and socialization. The dog is prepared to pass the Canine Good Citizenship class, the first step to qualify as a therapy dog.

After about five months in the Pen-Pal Program, Jan adopted Sasha. Jan had been looking for the perfect dog to help her in play therapy sessions. Together, they worked to prepare for the Pet Partner evaluation. Pet Partners is one of two organizations in the United States that assesses and certifies dogs for becoming a therapy assistant. A few years later, they went through a certification program so Sasha could work with Jan in Animal Assisted Play Therapy (AAPT).

How Sasha Helps Children Heal

Over the years, Sasha has worked hard with Jan to help children heal. She has helped hundreds of children feel safe and build trust again. When she comes to ChildSavers, she always has a doggie smile on her face. It is clear to Jan, and to many of us here at ChildSavers, that Sasha loves her work.

Jan says that Sasha can sense when a child is nervous or frightened. Sasha knows when a child is feeling sad and will offer her own form of comfort and attention. When a child has become upset in a session, Sasha will offer them a toy, roll on her back to entertain them, or lay down quietly beside them until they are calm.

Sasha is a joy to watch. She brings happiness and comfort to clients who are processing difficult and traumatic experiences. At ChildSavers, we know that trauma impacts the brain from an early age. Working in session with a therapy dog helps offsets traumatic responses by engaging in tactile and comforting contact with Sasha, non-verbal support, and nonjudgmental interactions with a comforting presence. Being with Sasha is a grounding way to stay connected in the present. Often, Sasha lies quietly and “listens” while children and teens tell her their most difficult experiences and memories. Sasha is a valuable partner in many of Jan’s therapeutic sessions.

What is Animal Assisted Play Therapy

Sasha works with children during play therapy sessions. According to the American Counseling Association play therapy, “creates a safe atmosphere where children can express themselves, try new things, learn more about how the world works, learn about social rules and restrictions, and work through their problems. Play therapy is based on the fact that play is a child’s natural medium of self-expression and provides an effective way for the child to communicate with others.”

Introducing a dog, like Sasha, into therapy sessions builds trust between therapist and child. It also helps a child to feel less stressed and reduces anxiety. Interacting with Sasha also helps a child feel unconditional acceptance. This acceptance can play a big role in healing in the wake of trauma.

Responding to Trauma with Resilience

A child who has experienced tragedy needs mental health therapy and support. The universal prescription for trauma is resilience. To help a child become resilient, they need help to reestablish a sense of safety.

Experiencing trauma can make you feel lost and alone. Animal companions, like Sasha, comfort people. If you are a pet owner, you will know the positive effects your beloved dog has on you after a tough day. When you are sad, your dog may come to you and put his head in your lap. Your cat may curl up beside you and purr as you pet her. Animals have soothing effects on people, and Sasha is no different. Sasha helps children feel loved and safe again. She helps children be resilient and strong.

Sasha is good at what she does because her handler treats her with kindness, dignity, and respect. The AAPT uses positive training with dogs and maintains strong ethics around the animal’s well-being and willingness to work in this capacity. Jan knows that Sasha is moving towards retirement age. Sasha has arthritis and she is getting old. However, Sasha will leave a wonderful legacy. With the addition of a new family member, Ozzie, the work of a therapy dog will continue at ChildSavers.

Jan Williamson shared this about Sasha and Ozzie:

Sasha’s favorite color is meat. She loves her squeaky toys and will carry them around and squeak them but has never chewed up one. Sasha likes to be where she can see all that is going on and survey her surroundings. She lets us know when our cat needs to be let inside and will not rest until we take care of Kitty.

Ozzie is a goofball who at this age runs in wild circles in the back yard and loves to chase a tennis ball. We think someone previously taught Ozzie how to sit, return a ball, and he appears to be crate trained and house broken. As an adolescent dog, he frequently runs into walls and trips over his own feet. He appears to be a happy soul.

Just like all of us, Sasha and Ozzie have very distinct and different personalities and skills for therapy work. While Sasha has been a calm, quiet, and reserved presence that puts anxious children at ease, Ozzie will be a more interactive and curious player in the session.