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Emotional Support Animals: Why are they in your therapy office?

To understand the role of an Emotional Support Animal (or ESA), it is necessary to differentiate between a service dog and an ESA. A service dog is trained specifically to support a person with a disability (physical, emotional, mental or sensory) by completing specific acts such as pulling a wheelchair, retrieving items, alerting for particular sounds, and providing reminders for medication protocols. Emotional support animals are trained to provide therapeutic support and comfort through companionship. ESAs support persons with mental health and psychiatric illnesses such as posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders.

Studies show that ESAs can play an important role in the wellness journey of clients. According to Scientific American, interactions between people and dogs show an increase in oxytocin and dopamine - two neurochemicals that are associated with positive feelings. This increase can be noted when people are petting, playing, and talking with a dog, especially a known dog.

What have we noticed at KS Services about our clients and our ESAs Remi and Moose?

Our ESAs greet clients with a wagging tail and often a quick snuggle. This greeting feels like a welcoming hug and can almost instantaneously make uneasy clients feel less anxious about the therapeutic experience. Our ESAs provide non-judgemental love to each client.

Moose and Remi provide opportunities for building therapeutic rapport with clients. Research shows that the most important component of effective therapy is trust and alliance between the therapist and client. Clients are able to start the session with Moose with a quick snuggle, a treat and a trick (paw and snuggle are client favorites), and a quick recap of Moose’s day so far. These conversations increase feelings of safety before approaching therapeutic goals.

Clients are able to use our ESAs in session as an effective coping skill to manage symptoms. Many clients find it is easier to engage in therapeutic content when they are touching and petting the dog, when they have the dog’s body weight in their lap, or when they are on the floor engaged with the dog instead of looking directly at the therapist. Clients who feel increased anxiety inside a therapy office are able to take Moose or Remi out on a walk to engage in holistic therapy work.

In a number of instances, Moose and Remi have helped to encourage consistency and engagement in session with clients. Therapy is not “easy” and often clients use the knowledge that Moose and Remi will greet them in session as extrinsic motivation for attending sessions when intrinsic motivation is lower. The ESAs provide consistency and help the client manage their own expectations before each session.

Each client at KS Services is able to use the therapy dog as they need. Often the ESAs work to match the tone of the client. If a client wants to engage with the dog, the dog is willing to play, do tricks, or enjoy a nice belly rub. If the client is engaged in therapeutic work and not with the dog, the dog will find a quiet spot in the office to rest and nap, increasing the feeling of safety and comfort in the room.

If you are interested in receiving therapy services at KS Services, please visit our website to schedule your free consultation. If you are unsure if having an ESA in office is a good fit for you or your family, please consider coming in and meeting Moose and Remi. Therapists are available for in person consultations so that everyone feels comfortable with the ESA in session.

Laura Waller, MS, NCC


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