How Hudson Helped Heal
I want to tell you about my dog, Hudson.
For over two decades I have been a psychotherapist sitting and listening to people who have all kinds of behavioral health concerns such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and many more. I have used all types of treatment modalities including psychodynamic psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), family therapy, couples therapy and solution-focused therapy. In all these wonderful years of being in this helping profession, one of the quickest and most effective treatments I had the fortune of seeing was with Hudson—my golden retriever who worked with me for seven out of his ten short years as a canine therapy dog.
For years, scientists have known that the simple act of petting your cat or dog can provide mental health benefits including lower blood pressure, improved heart health, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and an increase in several feel-good hormones in the brain such as serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin.
When dogs are brought into hospitals, schools, nursing homes or private practices, the patients, who may often seem sad, anxious, isolated and lonely, brighten up and feel cheered when they interact with the dogs. It’s as though a light turns on within them. Given our long relationship with animals, and the benefits we feel in their presence, it makes sense to utilize our human-animal bond in a therapeutic setting.
What is Animal-Assisted Therapy?
Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), sometimes known as animal therapy, pet therapy, or four-footed therapy uses animals during therapy sessions as a way to encourage communication, ease stress, and facilitate healing. They provide comfort, can alert others to a serious medical condition, and they can perform direct actions to help a person’s condition. According to Dr. Ann Berger, physician and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, “dogs are very present. If someone is struggling with something, they know how to sit there and be loving. Their attention is focused completely on the person all the time.”
Hudson taught me more than I taught him, and he touched so many lives by letting others touch him. He was my best education in mindfulness and the power of positive energy that we too often take for granted. Some may ask why Hudson had to wait until he was 3 years old to come to work, but the answer is that he, like most children and adolescents, needed to develop emotionally before taking on a job of such responsibility.
Like most kids, Hudson would test the limits. He had so much “extra” emotion and energy that we’d find him wandering out in a blizzard and getting lost, swimming out too deep and getting caught on lobster buoys, or becoming so excited when he heard the doorbell ring that he would literally charge through the screen door! He was in a hurry to find new friends.
With maturity and lots of “schooling,” he finished out his third year and settled into his “wise mind” as we say in DBT. He was trained as a young dog to hold his place. This meant that he would be instructed to jump on a box, find his balance, and sit until told he was “free.” I equate this to what I try to impart to my patients about finding their own balance and patience in their thinking and not creating a narrative that includes all or nothing thinking and immediate gratification. It’s about finding patience, self-control, and being mindful in the moment.
Hudson was balanced in the present moment, and he was all about pup positivity. He did this in my office whenever he would come in to greet someone. After sniffing around and getting his head pet, he would jump on the ottoman and sit until the patient told him it was okay to come down. It was a fascinating dance of spirituality and calm.
As funny as this was to watch a dog practice such discipline, it taught me so much about who was sitting across from him. Silence in the room is never comfortable for patients, but when Hudson worked, it was truly magical. He was able to extinguish a panic attack in under 60 seconds by allowing someone to hold him. He would absorb that energy and be still. It was brilliant. I watched people not able to get their breath, sobbing, only to regain their composure and balance in seconds!
The purpose of AAT is to help someone cope with a behavioral health challenge or physical health problem. Hudson did both. He worked with many of my kids and teens with anxiety and developmental disabilities. He would help with their verbal communication since they would need to give him a task. Sometimes, I would sit back and watch as that verbally-challenged patient told Hudson a story. In many situations, he sat at the game board playing with us and allowed the child to control his moves. That allowed the child’s self-esteem and social skills to flourish.
In many sessions, patients of all ages liked to brush his fur. That simple act took their minds off of their own troubles. I witnessed so much empathy and nurturing from people that he absorbed again and again. One of the most interesting gifts Hudson had was that he was able to alleviate someone’s fears, freeing them up to speak their thoughts and feelings. I watched teens especially hold him while they told me about something quite painful. I have always thought that without Hudson, the words would not have come as easily as they did with him there to lessen the load and help create calm and balance.
Hudson was sensitive to human emotion and so much more. He passed stoically over a year ago of hemangiosarcoma with no observed suffering. He worked up until his last day. Hudson was the most perfect therapy dog, and never even knew it. Now, how mindful is that?
I’d like to finish this by sharing what one of my college student patients told me:
“Hudson gave me courage. I would hold him and speak my truth—things I never would have been able to say, and then I would smile for the rest of the day.”
From the grave, Hudson keeps on giving.
If you are experiencing anxiety or depression and feel as though your negative thoughts and behaviors are impacting your everyday life, please reach out to us. At Wallace Family Therapy, we are trained to provide the most effective treatment that meets your specific needs and challenges. We’re here to help you.