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How Can a Therapy Dog Help When Counseling Children and Teens? 

click to enlarge Megan Holleran with Canuck - COURTESY OF MEGAN HOLLERAN
  • Courtesy of Megan Holleran
  • Megan Holleran with Canuck

Studies have shown that dogs improve people's health in numerous ways. They can lower anxiety and stress levels, provide a reason to exercise, expand our social interactions, and increase our overall sense of happiness, purpose and wellbeing.

Counselor Megan Holleran harnesses those benefits in her work with preteens and adolescents. A licensed clinical mental health and alcohol and drug counselor, Holleran says that her therapy dog, Canuck, plays a critical role in her practice.

The 65-pound German shepherd mix was rescued from a shelter in Montréal and trained at Williston-based nonprofit Therapy Dogs of Vermont.

Holleran — who previously worked at Spectrum Youth & Family Services in Burlington and at Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Colchester — is now affiliated with Hannah's House, a nonprofit mental health center with offices in Waitsfield and Waterbury. For the last year, she's also been taking Canuck twice a week to Harwood Union High School in Duxbury to provide mental health counseling to students. Those services were especially valuable in the aftermath of a 2016 collision on Interstate 89 that killed five local teenagers.

For our Animal Issue, Holleran spoke to Kids VT about how Canuck helps in her counseling work.

KIDS VT: How did you decide to incorporate a therapy dog into your work?

MEGAN HOLLERAN: I always knew I wanted to do it because I have two dogs, and one of them, Canuck, is sweet and personable and really good with people. It also came from my work at Spectrum and Woodside, working with a lot of youth who had experienced trauma. Sometimes it's really intense meeting a counselor for the first time, and an animal helps bridge that gap.

KVT: How so?

MH: Especially with preteens, they can feel like, What is this counseling thing? Who is this person? What's she going to ask me? Unfortunately, during the first few sessions, I need to get information so I know what's happening with them. In general, that's an age when kids feel like, if they're going to therapy, there must be something wrong with them. So, if I have an adolescent who's reticent to see me, I'll tell them that I have a therapy dog. Sometimes the first 15 minutes of the intake session is just them getting to know Canuck and me gently letting them do that and making sure they feel safe. Canuck makes it normal, like it isn't a big deal.

KVT: What kind of issues do you address?

MH: Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, addiction and phobias. So, when a client is talking about an addiction, they often feel a lot of guilt and shame. When I have clients who are very depressed, exercise can be very beneficial. As I often say to my clients, when thinking is a problem, doing more thinking about the thinking is not going to help your thinking. So I can always convince someone to get up and move around by saying, "Canuck really has to go for a walk." Sometimes, just being in nature gets you out of your head.

KVT: Does Canuck alert you to your client's emotional state?

MH: Yes, when the emotion is intense, I know that he'll go over and lie next to them or get closer to them. That's a trigger for me. I will never touch the clients myself, but the dog is something they can touch that's warm, loving and genuine. He can pick up on things before I do, such as changes in their breathing. So, he'll put his head on their knee to calm them. I've even seen him lick tears off of people. They can just pet him and breathe. Even looking at a dog releases oxytocin [the hormone associated with maternal bonding, trust and altruism].

KVT: How has Canuck been greeted at Harwood Union High School?

MH: I bring him to every counseling session there, and he also walks the halls. Constantly, the comments I hear are, "Oh, he's made my day!" and "I'm so happy now!" They don't talk to me; they talk to Canuck. That's how it is with mental health. You see someone become more open and more vulnerable and trusting. He can bring humor into the situation, too, because we'll be talking and he'll suddenly make these deep sighs. He brings people back to the present moment.

KVT: Have you had clients who didn't want the therapy dog there?

MH: I ask every time, but I have not run into that. Vermont is a great place to have a therapy dog. I've had people who say, "I don't like dogs, but it's fine if he's there." And then, after two or three sessions, they'll say, "Oh, but I really like this dog." He really helps me do a better job.

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