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Animal magic: how pets can help heal traumatised children

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When talking does not work, Laura Henagulph turns to the animals at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for help.

Cats, dogs, hamsters and horses — the psychologist has called on them all to help children who do not respond well to the traditional form of therapy.

It could be that the person has trust issues or that their past is simply far too painful for them to discuss. Also possible, they just are not able to adequately express their feelings.

“A lot of clients can't withstand an animal,” Dr Henagulph said.

Her clients are all part of TheraTails, a therapeutic programme created by the SPCA to help traumatised and depressed kids.

“They have got to pet the animal and interact with it,” she said.

“There is something about the touch, the connection and the exchange between the animal and client that is healing. It gets to something talk therapy can't get to.”

Dr Henagulph also runs her own company, Seaglass Clinical Consulting. She works with clients at the SPCA shelter twice a week, talking with them as they brush, pet or simply sit with animals.

She was asked to help by Kate Terceira, the charity's executive director, who set up TheraTails two years ago with a view of helping the animals socialise and perhaps getting them adopted.

City, a retired show jumper who died three weeks ago, came to the SPCA a year ago when his foster family had to leave Bermuda. He was more than 20 years old and had medical issues so it was unlikely he would easily be adopted. The SPCA put him to work in TheraTails.

Dr Henagulph described him as “a sensitive soul” who always seemed to know what the client needed — whether it was for him to just stand gently by, give a playful nudge or more active interaction

“One day we worked with three clients in a row,” she said,

“Towards the end, with the third client I could see he was tired. He was giving his all. Afterwards, we bought him into stall. He yawned and went down and went to sleep.”

One of Dr Henagulph's clients who did not speak, would come in and just rest her head and hands against City.

“Allowing herself to feel the heat and energy of the horse was a massive step forward for that client,” she said.

She recalled another client who had difficulty connecting with people.

“City kept coming over to her, and gently nudging her,” Dr Henagulph said.

The client initially thought City was pushing her away but eventually realised he was attempting to make contact.

“It completely went over her head that a being was trying to connect with her. It made me think about the amount of time she might think people weren't connecting with her, or didn't want to be around her, and missing the obvious signals.”

Dr Henagulph trained as a forensic psychotherapist in England. She became interested in animal-assisted psychotherapy while working in a secure forensic psychiatric unit in East London.

“I was working with men who really were very difficult to work with,” she said.

“There was a lot of violence and sex offending. They also had severe mental illness or developmental disorders like autism and had difficulty communicating.”

The men often had trouble understanding how their behaviour impacted the people around them.

She and another psychotherapist would use dogs as therapy, to help clients see how the animals reacted to different situations.

Halfway through the programme a man who was particularly difficult began talking about the grief he felt over his mother's death. By the end of the year he was calmer and able to relate to people in a less fragmented way.

Although they have worked with a few adults, most of TheraTails's clients are young people.

They have also hosted a group of 50 students from the Mirrors programme as well as companies interested in team-building activities.

Eileen Thorne, the programme's dog trainer, said the safety of both clients and animals was always paramount.

“I am constantly reading the body language of the dogs,” she said.

“If I think there is any possibility the dog is getting uncomfortable, I will swap the dog with another.

“The sessions are very organic: the client comes in, we ask them how they are feeling, they will pick what animal they want to work with.

“We have gone through all the animals, even a hamster and a turkey. There is just something about interacting with animals that makes people feel better.

“Any time I am upset in life, I just pet my dog.

“If I am having a difficult conversation with someone, petting my dog is a way to dissipate the energy and hold it together long enough to deal with the issue.”

The big problem is that people often want a quick fix from therapy when it can be a slow and gradual process, Ms Terceira said.

“It is often the small things that change,” she said.

“There might be a change in body language or the way the client interacts with others.”

Thanks to funding from Third Point Re, TheraTails is available at a reduced cost; there is no charge to anyone who cannot afford to pay.

“It is very rewarding work and we are really hoping to grow the programme,” Dr Henagulph said.

For more information on TheraTails, visit spca.bm. Contact Laura Henagulph on laura@seaglass.bm and Kate Terceira on kterceira@spca.bm or 747-7778

Different approach: SPCA executive director Kate Terceira, left, dog trainer Eileen Thorne and psychologist Laura Henagulph with shelter dog Cole (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Different approach: SPCA executive director Kate Terceira, left, dog trainer Eileen Thorne and psychologist Laura Henagulph with shelter dog Cole (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Different approach: SPCA executive director Kate Terceira, left, dog trainer Eileen Thorne and psychologist Laura Henagulph with shelter dog Cole (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

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Published September 23, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated September 23, 2020 at 2:07 pm)

Animal magic: how pets can help heal traumatised children

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