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Comfort Pup

November 20th, 2006, 06:13 PM
So sweet.... makes me wish my dog could do "therapy" like this:

'Comfort pup' can be grieving person's best friend
Animals help when words don't work, counsellor finds
Jeff Holubitsky, CanWest News Service
Published: Monday, November 20, 2006

Sam's gift with people comes to him naturally. He loves people and people love him.

They pet him, cuddle him and talk to him. When they do, the nine-month-old Shih Tzu-bichon frise cross shares their pain.

And when that happens, they are also more likely to express their feelings.

"We don't call him a therapy dog, we call him our comfort pup," says Kimberly Hewson, 18, who is going through some of the toughest days of her young life.

One of her closest friends was killed in a car accident in September that ended the lives of two teenagers.

Returning to school to face his empty desk was nearly impossible.

"You don't want to go to class, especially if you had that class with them," she says. "You can use every depressed word or words that describe feeling unhappy and they don't come close to describing how I felt."

It was during this time that Edmonton grief counsellor Angila Chase was asked to visit her school. She was there to help students deal with their raw emotions. But the last thing many teens want is to sit down with an adult.

That's where Sam comes in.

"We've had bad experiences with people coming to our school and . . . trying to get us to talk but we didn't want to; we weren't ready to talk," Hewson says.

"But with Sam, he was just something we could hold onto, and he doesn't keep asking us a million questions about how you were feeling."

Counsellors call it unconditional companionship, and Sam doles it out in spades.

University of Alberta Prof. Gaylene Fasenko studies the relationship between humans and animals and also works with the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta.

"It's a very non-judgmental kind of relationship," she says. "It's a very non-threatening environment."

Hewson agrees: "Sam is still like a living thing, but he makes it so much easier."

Chase, who is working towards a master's degree in counselling psychology, was in the habit of taking the pup to work with her when she began to notice his positive effect on her clients.

The pair enrolled in classes in animal-assisted therapy, where Sam learned how to behave around patients and how not to bark too much.

"But I was the one who was trained," Chase says.

Besides being called on to perform crisis work in schools, Sam also goes with Chase to counselling sessions at her office or in schools, where he'll sleep in a client's lap as painful experiences are discussed.

Sometimes children with learning difficulties help with his grooming, or overly active children are encouraged to run around with him to burn off excess energy.

But he really earned his keep helping the teens cope with the loss of their friends.

Chase said the day Sam was taken to school after the accident was an example of animal-assisted therapy at its best.

"He just sensed the atmosphere was different than when he normally comes in to see kids one-to-one," she says.

"His tail didn't go between his legs, but it sort of just went down."

Sam spent the day being passed around between crying teens or being taken on short walks with them.

"He was sort of like a magnet and kids would just come," Chase says. "It was like this automatic connection."

Tracey Smith, another of the grieving students, said if it hadn't been for Sam, she would never have talked to a counsellor.

"He takes your mind off everything else and just kind of makes you happy." Kimberly Hewson, who lost a close friend in a car crash, with Sam. "He was just something we could hold onto, and he doesn't keep asking us a million questions about how you were feeling," she says.
Photograph by : John Lucas, CanWest News Service

Not sure if the image is going to work... it shows in the link, though.