Dexter the Therapist Dog

Posted by Sabrina Marie Hadeed, MA, LPC, NCC Assistant Clinical Director & Therapist on February 16, 2016

hadeedImagine 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.

IMG 6459Dexter 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.

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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

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That is such a beautiful story and the fact that it's true is even more beautiful You made me cry out of compassion and love for both Dexter and the little girl. What you're doing for this girl is amazing Thank you for sharing!!

Posted by Kate Paletta

Kate, thank you for your comments!! It is such a pleasure to do this work and to have such a loyal and masterful companion like Dexter to support me!!

Posted by Sabrina Hadeed

What a great story. Animals are curious passionate and loving. They love you unconditionally and curious about your well being, When you are sad or happy they sense your feeling with three strong powerful tools; hearing, smell and vision. Licking is their way to provide care and love. Sabrina story demonstrate the awareness and effect of animals on human behavior.

Posted by Anthony

Thank you for your lovely comment. I appreciate the mention of how dogs communicate their love and support!

Posted by Sabrina Marie Hadeed

This made me cry. You are meeting my niece tomorrow and this made me think "Ellie is going to be ok" Thanks for loving our girl and taking good care of her.

Posted by Ann

Ann, thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings about what this story brought up for you. Dexter and I will be on the look out for your niece with open hearts and wagging tails.

Posted by Sabrina

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