Dexter the Therapist Dog
Imagine a girl who struggles to connect with others. Imagine this girl afraid and angry. Imagine her longing to be understood but finding it hard to trust. Then picture this girl in a primitive central Oregon desert wilderness therapy program, trying desperately to cling to her defenses. She is hiding in her sleeping bag, curled up like a caterpillar in a cocoon. She is refusing to come out. Field staff and peers in her group have all tried to encourage her out of her cocoon sleeping bag, with no success.
More than 24 hours pass until she finally meets her match, Dexter. He comes in quick and with genuine confused cries. He is about 90 lbs with goofy golden retriever fluffy hair and a slobbery grin. Dexter doesn’t know what to make of this cocooned girl zipped all the way to the top of her head in her sleeping bag. He cries and begins frantically sniffing for the opening of the sleeping bag. I tell Dexter out loud that it’s ok and that it’s just a girl who wants to stay tucked away from the world for a while. I tell him not to worry and that she will come out when she’s ready.
Dexter isn’t quite satisfied with my words, he continues to search desperately for the opening of the sleeping bag and when he finds it, he also finds a patch of the girl’s mostly hidden cheek. Victoriously, he begins licking her face and crying with excitement. With Dexter’s magical slobbery kisses, the girl begins to very slowly emerge from her cocoon, like a beautiful shy butterfly. First one half of her face appears with a hint of a smile, followed by a long skinny arm outstretching to meet Dexter’s nose. As if sensing the metamorphosis, Dexter shoves his head into the opening of the sleeping bag to search for the rest of the girl.
When he feels her body soften and her hand welcome his loving gestures, he plops his whole body onto her sleeping bag. Magically the girl is entirely disarmed and smiling. I speak for Dexter in my best goofy dog voice. I speak as if I am Dexter saying, “Thanks for the pets. I’m so glad we get to hang out. I love giving kisses. Your sleeping bag is so soft. It’s hard to be new here but I sure think you’re great. Don’t worry about the other girls, they are my friends and they will like you too”. The girl is sitting up now, gently stroking Dexter’s thick soft fur. She is smiling and then lets herself speak for the first time since arriving to our remote field area. She says almost in a whisper, “thanks Dexter, I think you are really cute”. Later, with Dexter’s encouraging words and slobbery kisses, she agrees to eat some lunch and talk with us.
This moment with Dexter is just one of many that represent the power of animal-assisted therapy in a wilderness setting. He helped me to build quick rapport with the girl and helped her begin to feel at ease and connect with her emotions. There are many empirical studies that confirm the effectiveness of animals on mental health and even physical well-being. Some studies even talk about the oxytocin that is released in a human’s brain, as the result of staring into a dog’s eyes. But Dexter doesn’t bother with scientific research, he just does what comes naturally to him, unconditionally loves and supports.
Perry, D., Rubinstein, D., & Austin, J. (2012). Animal-Assisted Group Therapy in Mental Health Settings: An Initial Model. Alternative & Complementary Therapies, 18(4), 181-185. doi:10.1089/act.2012.18403
Serpell, J. A. (2000). Animal companions and human well-being: An historical exploration of the value of human-animal relationships. In A. Fine (Ed.), Animal-assisted therapy (p. 3-18). San Diego, CA: Academic Press