Jeter, My Co-Therapist…How Can a Dog Be a Co-Therapist?

Jeter, My Co-Therapist…How Can a Dog Be a Co-Therapist?

People often ask me; how can a dog be your co-therapist? I often smile and think to myself…if you knew the power of a dog and human bond and connection. The impact Jeter has on the students, staff, teachers, parents, and community is unbelievable. Just about everyone in our small town knows who Jeter is, even our police officers and Mayor; and everyone in the school district. Jeter works 5 days a week, we rotate through the week and depending on each student’s needs, he works half days and takes breaks. Every morning as I’m getting ready for work, Jeter sits and waits patiently to jump into the car to go to work. When the word “work” is said, Jeter’s head perks up, his head turns to the side and his ears go up; he runs to the door and waits for his leash and work bandana to be placed on him. When he’s wearing his work bandana, with his Staff ID Badge, Jeter knows he’s going to work and knows he’s in his work role.

When we arrive at our first school, Jeter is a little spoiled, and he gets pulled around in a wagon as we walk to the office. Jeter stands in the wagon and places his front paws on the side, so he can see everyone and greet everyone. It’s amazing to see how the office environment switch, where there might be a frustrated parent or staff member, and the moment they see Jeter, you can see this calmness and switch in the climate. I often take Jeter out of the wagon so he can go and greet other staff in the office, he walks to each person, lets them pet him and then moves onto the next person. When we finish saying good morning to everyone, we then make our way across the campus to our office. Jeter again is pulled in the wagon and has his little tail wagging as he greets students making their way to class. Jeter has a bed in each of our offices, and he has certain toys that are allowed in the office or that I make available during session, again depending on each students’ needs.

Our days fluctuate and range depending on the sites and needs. Somedays we are only doing crisis response/management, individual therapy sessions, group work, supporting student’s behavior plans, risk assessments, etc. Our sessions are different with each student, it’s not the typical sitting on the couch and chair, talk therapy. When we are working at the high school, Jeter knows his students and the moment they enter the office, I observe Jeter’s interaction with the student, his presence to their walk, body language and the same for him, and it’s very telling on the student’s mood, feelings, and needs. A session can start with the student walking into our office, sitting on the couch or chair and Jeter patiently waits for them to invite him into their space. We’ve had sessions start with a student who enters the office, closes the door, and sits on the ground in the middle of the office and asks for Jeter to go to them, and the student has started to cry and hug Jeter.

There have been times where a student has entered our office, dysregulated, angry, wanting to punch the wall, and Jeter waits patiently for my direction on when to approach the student. This was a student we had been working with, so I knew how to approach this student with the assistance of my co-therapist, Jeter. I continued to observe and monitor the student, waiting for the right time, and gave Jeter his ball, Jeter took the ball to the student and rolled it to his feet. The student stopped and looked at Jeter, picked up the ball, and bounced it. Jeter caught the ball, took the ball back to the student, the student did this a few more times, and Jeter continued to take it back to him, the student then began to talk and express what he was feeling. The student shared if Jeter hadn’t taken him the ball, he probably would’ve punched the wall.

Or during risk assessments for suicidality, we had a student was completely shut down, unresponsive, with his head down. The student was sitting across from me, Jeter was sitting by my feet. I gave Jeter the hand signal to approach the student, and he laid by his feet. I continued to observe the student’s response to Jeter. Jeter looked at me and looked at the student and sat right below the student’s hand that was hanging over the side of the chair. The student then began to pet Jeter and he looked down at Jeter, he tapped his leg for Jeter to jump on his lap. I began to tell the student about Jeter and how he’s my co-therapist. The student still not responding to me, continued to pet Jeter, and Jeter continued to make eye contact with the student. The student began to cry, and Jeter leaned towards the student and he hugged him and began to respond to my questions. The thing that I remember most is that Jeter and the student continued to make eye contact, and Jeter never took his eyes off the student. Again, Jeter waits for my command/cue on when to approach the student, this is how Jeter has the title Certified Professional Therapy Dog.

I’m in the process of completing my certification in Animal Assisted Psychotherapy, it’s my License, as an LMFT, LPCC, certification in Trauma and scope of practice and scope of competence that provides Jeter with the title, Certified Professional Therapy Dog. I’ve had people share they want to take their dogs to work and get them trained at the local pet store, which is great for volunteer programs who visit libraries and hospitals but to use a therapy dog in the clinical, therapeutic setting, is different and takes a lot more training, and certification. I have attended trainings, intensive workshops on animal-assisted psychotherapy in Denver, CO and classes in order to be competent in my practice to use Jeter. Every student Jeter works with in the individual therapeutic setting, has a treatment plan and treatment goals, and his interaction and bond with the students help us reach their individual goals. People may say or think, it’s just a dog, but to the students and the work we do, it’s so much than that.

It’s taken a lot of time, work and dedication to get Jeter to the place he is now in my therapeutic practice. I always knew I wanted to incorporate a dog into my therapeutic practice and when the opportunity presented itself to have Jeter board approved and a part of my work for my school district; I jumped on the opportunity. We started basic obedience and socialization when he was 4 ½ months, he’s now 9 years old. He’s completed several classes from sport agility to rally to scent classes and temperament test. Jeter passed the Canine Good Citizen Test, two therapy dog temperament test and several observations. Jeter is a 17lb, buff cockapoo, he’s small, but mighty. When I first started the Mental Health Program for our school district, the stigma associated with receiving mental health services prevented a lot of students from receiving the support they were in dire need of.

When Jeter was board approved and started to work with me, the stigma of receiving mental health services greatly decreased. Having Jeter, the students, staff, and community has helped changed the mindset of someone receiving mental health services as “crazy,” or the fear of what other students may think if they are seeing entering my office, to, “I’m going to see Jeter,” a non-judgmental, safe, calming and supportive place to go. Jeter is accepted by the students; when my high school students are seen by the younger students (elementary, middle school) accepting Jeter and mental health, they accept him as well. It doesn’t matter if you are a football player, baseball player, cheerleader, in band, choir or in ROTC, have green hair, short or long hair, Jeter accepts each student for who they are, and they accept him. If you ask a student who their therapist is, more likely than not, they will say Jeter, most kids don’t know my name, or just call me, “Jeter’s mom.”

Many students we work have been hurt by the people they are supposed to trust the most in their lives and having Jeter in the office helps build the rapport and trust me, as their therapist. When we had first relocated to the Central Valley, Jeter was attacked by a pit-bull mix, I thought, oh, no there goes our opportunity of him becoming a therapy dog, as dogs who are usually attacked usually don’t want to be around others and often become skittish, however, that was not the fact with Jeter. Instead, he’s doing the complete opposite, loves to be around people, and helps build the trust, and connections with others. Jeter was born to be my co-therapist and help others, he loves what he does, and I love what I do, especially now more than ever, since I get to work with my best friend every day.

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