A Therapy Dog’s Journey
I want to share another powerful story of using Shelties as a co-therapist in play therapy with children. My last story was of my female sheltie, Jenga, but the true pioneer in this field is my oldest and very first Sheltie Razz. Razz is seven years old and I had the wonderful opportunity of showcasing him in the last edition of the Pacesetter as he finished his AKC Championship. Razz has a long, enduring history of helping me with the many children I encounter as a child therapist. Here is one his favorite animal-assisted therapy success stories….
I first met Dylan four years ago when his adoptive parents brought him to therapy to help him deal with his traumatic abuse history. Dylan was only four years old at the time, had been relocated from the other side of the country through adoption, and initially appeared as a frail, skinny, and lifeless child. Through his parents sharing his extensive history of sexual and physical abuse I came to realize this would be one of the most challenging cases of my career. As a result of Dylan’s trauma, he wet the bed every night, had major physical injuries, was extremely fearful of people, had night terrors, and experienced constant flashbacks of his abuse. My trained therapy dog Razz became a constant companion for Dylan as we began a long journey of healing. Dylan worked in animal-assisted play therapy to learn how to keep himself safe and avoid the pitfalls associated with childhood abuse. He feared being abused again both by his adoptive parents and the outside world. Razz seemed to be the only living being he trusted. He had a hard time even entering a session without Razz’s presence. When Razz was there it was a delight to see a smile on Dylan’s face and to hear the laughter in his voice. Dylan spent a lot of time disclosing the details of his abuse, expressing anger and aggression against his perpetrator, and learning how to cope with being abused, losing his family, and being adopted. However, it would be three years before Dylan reached a pivotal turning point in his therapy.
Dylan verbalized enough in sessions about his abuse that we were able to prosecute his abuser to ensure no other children are hurt by him. It was a lot for such a young soul to tackle but somehow with Razz’s help Dylan found the strength to do it better than any child I have ever met. However, Dylan was still faced with an additional dilemma. Even though he knew his abuser had gone to jail he still felt afraid of him and at seven years old wanted the opportunity to confront him. This is no small feat for even the adult survivor of abuse. Where it was not appropriate for Dylan to do this confrontation in person he did come up with a creative way to address this issue with the help of his imagination. However, I do not believe it would have been possible for him to take this step without Razz. Here is what happened at that pivotal session for Dylan:
Dylan entered my playroom and found an empty box in the corner of the room. I had just moved to my new office and had been unpacking things. He promptly asked to be able to use the box and I immediately agreed. He said, “I know just what I need for this box” and he ran to get two swords which he promptly identified as the paddles for his boat. You see the old box suddenly became Dylan’s vessel to reach his abuser who was hundreds of miles away. He jumped into the box and ordered Razz to join him. “Come on Razz we are going on a trip together. It is a trip I cannot make without you.” Dylan clearly expressed Razz’s importance to him as he invited him on this journey. Dylan pretended that he and Razz sailed all the way to the city where his abuse occurred. He and Razz confronted his abuser together. This was the most cathartic experience I had ever witnessed as a therapist. With the support of Razz I saw this frail, empty child emerge into a strong, powerful survivor. Throughout the entire session Dylan walked me through standing up to his abuser and saying “You cannot hurt me anymore. I am strong now and you are in jail and I have my dog Razz and Ms. Mary to help me too.” Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched the events of this journey unfold. Dylan had really made tremendous progress in the three years I had been working with him and this single session was proof. Dylan even wanted me to take a picture of him and Razz in their makeshift boat so he could remember the experience. At the end of the session I immediately told Dylan’s parents of the revelations and Dylan began flaunting his picture. He was so proud of what he and Razz had been able to achieve together. From that session forward Dylan no longer had nightmares, rarely wet his bed, began playing lots of sports, and acted like the typical seven year old child he had become. The “miracle” session I mention actually occurred about two years ago. I stopped seeing Dylan about a year ago when we felt he no longer needed therapy due to the tremendous progress he had made. However, his parents recently brought him to see me again because they had decided to move back to the state where all his abuse had occurred. They were concerned about the possibility of retraumatization which can sometimes occur in situations like this. However, Dylan came in with his big smile, a hug for Razz, and reassurance to me that his abuser still could not hurt him because he was strong, brave, and always had the picture of him and Razz on their journey together. Dylan even pulled the tattered picture out of his pocket to show me how much it meant to him even though it had been several years later. As I write this story I smile and remember the happiness Razz brought to this child’s life. I watch my trusting therapy dog grow older with each year that passes. However, I know that even when he is no longer in this world his memories will live on forever in pictures such as this one and in the hearts of many young children. Thank you Razz for all that you have given to me and for what you have provided to the kids we work with every day. I pray for many more stories such as this one to share with the world.