Source: Sydney Morning Herald, September 19, 2011
Working with victims of physical, sexual and mental abuse is an area filled with difficultly. It becomes even harder when dealing with children.
For Mary Jo McVeigh, a counselor and child trauma expert, who has worked with children for over 25 years, it was a random interaction between her pet dog and a young client that opened her eyes to a new approach, one which is producing unexpected results.
McVeigh is the founding principal of Cara House, which helps children dealing with trauma. In addition to traditional counselling, the clinic offers special sessions with a loveable spoodle (cross between a poodle and a cocker spaniel) named Toby.
Toby is the canine clinical lead at Cara House and has been helping trauma survivors for five years. He is believed to be the first dog in Sydney to be used to help treat abuse victims.
"I could say it was some very sophisticated approach, but it was completely by accident," said McVeigh.
"I was walking Toby one day and had to stop by work. A young girl was here [Cara House] and she was struggling with certain relationships, she wouldn't let anybody near her, but there was an instant connection to Toby."
Upon realising the effectiveness of animal comfort, McVeigh and her colleague Laura Luchi undertook training in the trauma model of animal assistance therapy.
Since then, Toby has become an integral part of the work done at Cara House.
"The beauty of Toby is the approach is more tactile," said McVeigh.
"We work through Toby, we say what would Toby be feeling, what would Toby be thinking, how could you help Toby with his barking. This encourages children to take on a caring role for Toby and vice versa."
McVeigh talked about how difficult it was for a child that has been traumastised by abuse to trust people, especially adults.
According to government agency, the Australian Insitute of Family studies, there were 46,187 claims of child abuse across Australia in the 2009-10 financial year.
Experts say this is a conservative number because many cases are never reported.
"Relationships for these children are a dangerous place because it was in their important relationships that they were hurt," said McVeigh. "Toby was a more purposeful use, the children begin to talk emotionally through him."
"Being able to note Toby's emotions and say things like, 'Oh is Toby barking because he's being protective of us or what's Toby saying?'" said McVeigh.
"That allows children, who can't talk about their emotions to talk about them through him," she said.
The use of animals in therapy, especially dogs, is becoming increasingly common. In June, a New York court allowed a 15-year-old rape victim to have a 'comfort dog' while she testified against her father.
Defence lawyers for the accused are planning to appeal with resulting conviction. This will determine whether dogs will be allowed in court proceedings in the state thereafter. According to the New York Times, courts in Arizona, Hawaii and Idaho already allow trained dogs in courtrooms where young victims or witnesses are involved.
Professional dog trainer Steve Austin believes dogs are underused in many areas of society and could become mainstream in helping child abuse victims.
"In my opinion, we have used 15-20 per cent of the canine's ability. We've never really sat down and thought about pushing the dog and really training the dog beyond those levels," Austin said.
"A lot of people will often say, 'I will not do that unless there is something in it for me.'
"With a canine, the fact that they're just with you is enough for them, they're a very giving animal," he said.