Most people are less intimidated by dogs with floppy ears, and consider white dogs less scary than black ones.
That’s just one awareness Angela Neufeld has picked up in the years she has been using dogs as therapeutic assistants in her practice as a registered psychologist.
“I’m not by any means suggesting that black dogs with pointy ears are dangerous. It’s all about perception. It doesn’t mean you can’t do this with a black, pointy-eared dog,” she says.
In addition to her private practice, Neufeld works part-time as a mental health counsellor at Yukon College. She is often accompanied by either Magnus or Allegra, the two floppy-eared, cream-coloured English golden retrievers she selected for that purpose.
“Part of it is looking for an animal that is responsive, but not pushy. There are some breeds that are more suitable than others, but more important is the overall temperament of the dog,” Neufeld says.
“I wouldn’t want a dog that is jumping up on people, or getting too pushy. I want to know that I have some predictability about what’s going to happen in a session.”
Neufeld believes animals can serve a variety of purposes in helping clients deal with issues such as anxiety, depression, or relationship difficulties. She cites the example of a woman who recently sought help after failing her first semester at the college.
“We actually spent the first five or ten minutes just interacting with Allegra, talking a little bit about her. For some people, that’s kind of a nice way to ease into it, and they can see that this process doesn’t have to be intimidating.”
As her client petted the dog, Neufeld explained that animals also experience stress in different ways and that difficulties are part of life, “she just started crying and started telling me about what the problems were that she’s been struggling with.”
Neufeld acknowledges that animal-assisted therapy is not for everyone. Some people are afraid of dogs, or allergic to them. In some cultures, animals are expected to remain outdoors at all times.
While she always gives potential clients the option of not having a dog present during counselling sessions, her personal experience and research have convinced her that interacting with animals can provide healing benefits.
Neufeld uses only her own dogs in the process because of the important of that relationship.
“That’s a lot of what we’re trying to reinforce here. We’re really focusing on the subtleties of attachment, and helping people who may be struggling to have positive connections with other people,” she explains.
“People who would never hug anybody might come and hug the dog. If they can have a positive connection with an animal, that may support having a positive connection with the therapy process. There’s nothing exciting to watch; it’s pretty subtle.”
As an animal lover who has also studied the use of horses in a therapeutic setting, Neufeld is conscious of the ethics involved in subjecting animals to the process.
“The animal is not a tool. He’s like your co-therapist, and you need to respect that they are also going to be impacted by every experience that you have. They take on the energy that’s going on in the room as well,” she says.
“Which is why I wouldn’t use the same dog every day in a therapy setting. Unless it’s a particularly resilient dog, I don’t think that would be fair to the dog. I have a choice to do this work, but they may not have the same choice.”
Although her dogs came from the same breeder in Ontario, they are not related and have different personalities. At three and a half years old, Magnus is an “old soul” who is well-tuned to the vibe in a room.
“If somebody comes in and they’re not that interested, he will just go and lie by the door.”
Two-year-old Allegra, on the other hand, is “sensitive, but not as sensitive, so I think she can kind of handle more,” she says.
Still, the older, larger dog’s strategy of zoning out when expedient apparently had a therapeutic effect on at least one client who had trouble sleeping because of anxiety.
“He considered it kind of a gift that the dog could be so calm and trusting,” Neufeld says.