Therapist Maureen Huang runs her practice in Singapore with her best friend, a friendly labrador-retriever mix named Telly.
In her previous job as a banker, Huang volunteered with Riding for the Disabled, a charity which helps people with disabilities with therapeutic horseback riding. The experience opened her eyes to the possibilities of animal assisted therapy.
Huang then quit her job and travelled to Colorado in 2011, where she obtained a Master of Social Work and Certificate in Animal Assisted Social Work from the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. She spent two years in Colorado being trained in animal assisted therapy, which is also when she met Telly – who would eventually become her co-therapist.
Returning to Singapore in 2013, Huang founded Pawsibility, a therapy and counselling service specialising in animal assisted therapy for children and youth.
(Video by Nurul Amirah Haris)
More than just petting a dog
During an interview with Yahoo Singapore at her office at Eu Tong Sen street, Huang, 34, was quick to point out that the therapy sessions involve a lot more than just petting a dog. “It’s a goal-directed intervention where a trained therapy dog works together with a professional therapist in helping a person reach certain clinical goals,” she explained.
In her practice, Huang focuses on counselling and social emotional development work with Telly’s help. They spend a fixed number of sessions with an individual or a small group to work on certain objectives such as anger management, problem solving or team building.
This is different from animal assisted activities where dog owners and their dogs volunteer their time at welfare homes or nursing homes for social interaction.
“Initially when we started, it was really hard,” said Huang. “People questioned, ‘Why do I need to see a dog? Can’t I just have a family pet at home?’
“And it’s really different – it really is a facilitated kind of intervention. Just like you would see a regular counsellor working on specific things, except that in this case there’s a dog that assists you in the process and makes it a lot more fun.”
She continued, “A lot of times, kids find it hard to talk to strangers about their problems, but having a friendly dog around makes it a lot easier. They feel a lot safer… Sometimes they just tell Telly their story and it’s almost as if I’m invisible.”
During the animal assisted therapy sessions, Telly is sometimes involved in role-playing games where the clients express how they feel about a situation while at other times, the clients are encouraged to teach new tricks to Telly and it helps build their self-confidence, explained Huang.
One client was a teenage girl with high social anxiety. She was nervous around people and would not speak to others. When Huang first met her, the girl would write what she wanted to say on a whiteboard.
But the girl wanted to learn how to do tricks with Telly, so Huang taught her to say simple commands to the dog such as “sit” or “lay down” to encourage the girl to talk.
“She really enjoyed going for walks with Telly. And she wanted Telly to listen to her, so she had to use her words,” said Huang. “It started with simple words – ‘Telly, let’s go’ or ‘Telly, stop’. And that started her being able to speak up.”
Huang also encouraged her to try introducing the dog to others. She explained, “Eventually she was able to introduce Telly to strangers. Small moments like that helped her to speak up and overcome that social anxiety and realise it’s not so scary to talk to people… she took those lessons back to school and could say small phrases to people in school. Now she’s able to talk with some of her friends in school.”
The girl’s parents and teachers all noticed the change – a result that Huang described as “fulfilling” to see.
A dog that loves to go to work
Not all dogs are meant to be therapy dogs, even if they are well-behaved family pets, said Huang.
“What we’re looking for is a dog that really enjoys human interaction because at the end of the day, if the interaction is not good for the dog, [if] the dog doesn’t enjoy it, the dog isn’t going to be a good therapy dog,” said Huang.
Therapy dogs are trained not to jump on or bite clients, and not to react if their tails are accidentally pulled. Huang also supervises all interactions her clients have with the dog.
Huang believes her dog is sensitive to how clients feel. “Sometimes I think a lot of what Telly has in her is her own intuition,” she said. “She knows. When I work with a group of teenagers, she knows which teenager is feeling upset that day and she will go sit with that child. And I wouldn’t even know that,” said Huang.
Telly also enjoys the nature of the work, said Huang. “She really likes work. She gets excited when I get ready to go to work,” she said. After a particularly stressful session with a client, Huang sometimes takes Telly for a walk and some playtime, just like a regular pet. “She’s able to come into each session fresh. She knows what clients need, and resets herself, said Huang.
There has been a “growing acceptance” for animal assisted therapy, according to Huang. “I think there’s been a significant increase in the number of clients that we’ve seen over the years,” she said.
She continued, “Seeing the lives that are transformed, or the change that can happen, that really makes my day… in working with people, it’s very emotionally draining but seeing the breakthrough that happens, it gives us hope and makes us excited to go to work every day.”
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