Animal Assisted Therapies at QPASTT
QPASTT encourages innovation in our service delivery. Intake and Connect Team leader Noemie Rigaud has brought Animal Assisted Therapies to QPASTT with her Golden Retriever Tango.
“In trauma-counselling, our initial goals are often about building safety and trust with a client. Tango loves meeting new people and his presence can support a client’s initial engagement with QPASTT. A first session with a counsellor can be intimidating; Tango can help demystify that engagement, bringing a sense of play and supporting the therapist to build rapport with a client.
For torture and trauma survivors, who have had trust in people shattered, a dog or other animal can offer a point of connection and trust with a living being. I had a client experiencing severe depression who generally presented as flat and unable to connect with more joyful feelings. In session with Tango, who was offering lots of hugs and interactions, the client giggled. It’s quite amazing how Tango’s presence can influence people’s state of being.
A client who had been in prolonged immigration detention attended QPASTT’s office for a counselling session. He saw Tango and asked to say hello. Tango gave him lots of big hugs and licks and the client laughed and smiled. He told us that later that night “I was in my bedroom (back in detention), and I thought about that hug, and I started laughing.” Tango was able to offer a strong experience of care and playfulness for this person that resonated with them long after the interaction.
There are ethical and cultural considerations for bringing a therapy animal into an organisation. We ensure clients provide informed consent. Tango’s consent is important too. I observe his body language and interactions to ensure he is enjoying working in this setting. Tango undergoes both temperament and skills tests every year and as Tango’s handler, I need to be able to demonstrate emotional regulation and an ability to read Tango’s body language, stress signals and manage any risks for our clients and Tango.
Some cultures and religions have particular views about dogs and their appropriate place. Many people will have had negative interactions with dogs or other animals that may leave them feeling uncomfortable. We take an approach of cultural safety and humility, where client choice is paramount. We don’t impose Tango on anyone – clients or staff. His presence is always announced to staff in advance. He is always on a leash when outside the therapy room, and a sign with a photo of him is placed on the office front door to announce his presence, with the translation in several languages.
Recently Tango and I went to a QPASTT school holiday camp. There was a group of young people who were all scared of dogs, and yet they swarmed around Tango, patting him and taking him for walks. It was a great example of survivors being able to articulate their fears and still step out of their comfort zone. It demonstrated a significant level of resilience and the possibilities that animals can bring to therapeutic work.”