This week we had the privilege to receive Dr. Risë VanFleet in Portland at the Annual Fall Play Therapy Conference. Dr. VanFleet has many credentials in both psychology and dog training, she has worked with therapists and trainers all around the world, and written dozens of books.
The key to her practice as a play therapist is her use of trained therapy dogs with the children. She described the ways to use dogs with child therapy safely, and how these relationships can and should be positive while empowering the dogs, as well as the clients.
Through numerous examples and video segments Dr. VanFleet showed the ways to include dogs in working with children in therapeutic settings. Likewise, she gave numerous dog demonstrations, taught us her step-by-step guide to instructing a child to clicker train the dog. She had great ideas for working with the children, such as “Be a Tree,” the way she teaches kids to greet unfamiliar dogs. There are simply so many ways that dogs can teach children prosocial behaviors!
While there is a growing body of research to demonstrate the value of dog-child therapy and relationships, there are some significant benefits that stood out. Many children who previously abused animals can be taught to interact with them safely, and then they cease to injure animals in the future. Learning to read canine body language teaches the children empathy and understanding. Interacting positively with a dog reinforces impulse control and training the dog is a confidence building activity which increases self-efficacy. Simply petting or looking fondly at a dog releases Oxytocin in our brains, a hormone active during maternal bonding which reduces fear and stress.
It is important to recognize that play therapy is built upon the notion that play is incredibly powerful in creating emotional and physical safety to bond and interact. While many of the clients in play therapy sessions are children, all ages of people and dogs can experience the benefits of play and social relationship with dogs.
There are many trainers and researchers that are now recognizing the power of real play. Young children are often naturals at imaginative play, but as adults how many of us really play with our dogs? Maybe you don’t have the urge to play a make-believe game but you can certainly make training a game, or take your dog out for a game of fetch. If you get a chance, you might even want to certify your dog for volunteering as a therapy pet. It can be truly rewarding for everyone involved!