As a counselor who uses animal-assisted therapy, King-Bussard has witnessed firsthand how important the human-animal bond is and how instrumental it can be in helping someone deal with trauma
A therapy dog named Busy is seen during an appointment at Animal Assisted Counseling of Colorado June 9. The Aurora-based counseling service uses therapy animals during therapy sessions.
It’s never easy telling a 9-year-old that his mother committed suicide four years ago. But that’s the nature of Carri King-Bussard’s daily work as a counselor in Aurora, where she’s had a private practice for eight years.
However, the news is easier to break when a fuzzy companion by the name of Hope is sitting at his feet.
“They hadn’t told (the boy) how his mom died. And we prepped for this … we said we’re gonna have this session and you’re going to hear some really hard things,” said King-Bussard, director of Animal Assisted Counseling of Colorado. “I had Hope lay down at his feet and said, ‘You can use her as support and pet her if you’re feeling sad.’ We told him what happened and he started petting her. (Hope) smiles a lot, she licked him … it made him feel better and made the situation easier.”
As a counselor who uses animal-assisted therapy, King-Bussard has witnessed firsthand how important the human-animal bond is and how instrumental it can be in helping someone deal with trauma.
Animal-assisted therapy is exactly what it sounds like: animals, such as dogs, are present during a therapy appointment to help the client.
For example, King-Bussard does a lot of work within the child welfare system. Often times, her clients are young children who have been abused or neglected and distrust adults as a result. But when the kids see King-Bussard treating an animal with kindness, they’re more inclined to trust her.
“They see we are treating the animal very kindly and very compassionately … we are perceived as safer therapists and we can build rapport and trust quicker than maybe a therapist that doesn’t have an animal,” she said. “Just having an animal in the room changes the dynamics.”
AAT isn’t solely for young clients or trauma cases. King-Bussard works with clients of all ages with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, major depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.
While she works with a lot of dogs, the animals that can be used for AAT aren’t limited to man’s best friend. In addition to three canines, King-Bussard’s practice has four guinea pigs and two rats. People who have been through something traumatic may identify better with small animals. Like prey animals, they may feel scared or vulnerable, King-Bussard said.
These smaller creatures don’t go through training like a therapy dog would. King-Bussard just makes sure the animal possesses certain qualities that make would make it a good therapy animal. In addition to being somewhat social, the animals shouldn’t bite and should be healthy.
But with such flexible standards, and no state or federal guidelines outlined for therapy animals, what separates a therapy animal from a person’s regular house pet?
For one, it’s important to distinguish therapy animals from emotional support animals and service animals. A service animal is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, meaning they’re allowed in all public places with their owner. This doesn’t apply to therapy animals.
While a therapy dog will undergo training and testing similar to the Canine Good Citizen Test — a measure used to evaluate how well behaved and trained a dog is — they aren’t the same as service animals.
“She can’t go into restaurants or grocery stores with me,” King-Bussard said of Hope, a golden retriever who has been part of many counseling sessions. “A therapy dog works with a social worker, a therapist, a psychologist or an occupational therapist. So they’re paired up with a professional working in their field of expertise.”
Basically, a therapy dog is more like a furry coworker than a furry daily support system.
“Where it gets tricky is with emotional support animals,” said Ashley Duncan, who works at King-Bussard’s practice. “ESA dogs, like therapy animals, aren’t guaranteed any sort of public access. They get paired with people who might have mental health issues and can calm them down.”
Emotional support animals, unlike service dogs, aren’t required to perform any specific functions. As the name suggests, they mostly provide emotional support for those with mental illnesses, such as comforting a person with severe anxiety or providing companionship for someone with major depression.
Animal Assisted Counseling of Colorado is the only counseling center in Aurora that uses animal-assisted therapy. But with 25 clients and a growing waitlist, King-Bussard and Duncan predict AAT will become more common within the next decade, especially since traditional talk therapy just doesn’t work for everyone.
“Some of our adults clients have been from therapist to therapist and haven’t found a good connection, so they might be really tired of going to therapy and think it’s not for them,” Duncan said. “But then they come in here and see a smiling, beautiful blonde dog and feel better. It’s that special human-animal bond.”