Dr Charis Green is a Clinical Psychologist and Animal Assisted Therapist, based in Crouch End, North London, and discusses how therapy dogs help in EMDR Therapy
We know that dogs can make a huge difference in therapy, and often make people feel more able to try therapy in the first place.
But can we actually enhance traditional talking therapy therapy models through working with dogs? My answer is absolutely yes, and today I want to share some of my thoughts of working alongside dogs in EMDR.
EMDR is most known as a trauma focused therapy, that helps us understand the way that the past continues to show up in the present, and help us find a way for our mind and body to process past trauma and move forward. You can find more information on EMDR therapy here.
EMDR is a therapy with different phases, and my experience is that dogs can help therapists throughout the process.
The first priority in any trauma focused therapy is helping clients to feel safe enough to begin sharing what has bought them to therapy; for people who have experienced trauma this can be a big ask. It can also be hard for people who have been through trauma to experience humans as a safe presence, whether they are consciously aware of this or not, as so very often our experiences of trauma are via other humans.
So a calm, regulated dog in session can help settle a client’s nervous system often much more quickly than a human therapist, because there isn’t unconscious hypervigilance to threat. As a therapist I can also use a dog to hold a balance of emotional intensity during sessions. We need some emotional activation for trauma therapy to be effective, but if it feels this is becoming too much, and clients are moving out of their window of tolerance, there are many ways a dog can help bring us back to a place of safety. We can also help teach clients to notice the signs from a dog in session that they may be moving towards dissociation, and then use this as a way to help clients notice what is happening in their body.
Another core phase of EMDR is resourcing, the process of accessing internal resources, strengths and positive memories in readiness for trauma processing, whilst continuing to soothe the nervous system. There are endless ways dogs can help in this phase, through helping access positive feelings such care, warmth and nurture, through acting as a protective figure, guarding a calm place - creativity is really your limit here. There is something about having the presence of a dog in the room that helps these resources feel more ‘live’, and for us to really think about how to embed these for use in between sessions.
EMDR uses ‘dual attention stimuli’ or ‘DAS’ as a key part in the therapy - this just means ways of keeping attention on both the past events and the present moment at the same time. We call this keeping one foot in the past and one foot in the present. This helps clients recall past experiences with some emotional charge, but to also feel grounded in the moment with the therapist, rather than ‘reliving’ the past event as if it was here and now (as is often the case with traumatic memories). Often we use bilateral stimulation (BLS) (providing stimuli to each side of the body in turn) in EMDR as part of this process. Again, there are so many ways that dogs can help in this process.
Having a dog in a clients lap whilst they are trauma processing is a brilliant way of holding that dual focus - having that physical presence serves as a concrete reminder that we are in the here and now, and it’s inevitable that dogs will stretch, yawn and move, even when they are asleep. We can also be really creative in the way we use BLS with dogs, whether that be through movement such as walking with a dog, stroking the dog, or using traditional BLS methods with a dog present. Again, working alongside a dog helps us vary the emotional intensity during this process, and we can also learn to tune into cues from a dog that we might need to take a break or reduce the emotional charge.
As long as the therapy continues to have a clear clinical rationale there really are so many ways to be creative in working alongside dogs in EMDR, and I feel very privileged to be able to see the difference that Therapy Dog Jara makes for clients within therapy.