Amy Pickett and Basil work as a therapeutic team. Photo by John Johnston, courtesy of the Colorado Health Foundation.

The little girl had lost a parent to cancer, and the pain was so great she could not speak of it. Not to anyone – except Basil.

Slowly, over several sessions, the story of the girl’s crushing loss was whispered into Basil’s soft ear. And Basil, a 6-year-old golden retriever, never failed to be a good listener.

“Basil hears many different types of stories,” said Amy Pickett, a mental health therapist at Sheridan Health Services, the school-based health clinic at Sheridan Middle School in the Sheridan school district.

She’s also Basil’s owner and co-worker.

“He gets lots of kids that have experienced a lot of trauma. They’re more comfortable talking with him.”

Animals provide physical, mental health therapy

Basil is part of a growing cadre of animals who are using their unique skills to provide both physical and mental health therapy to children. Animal-assisted therapy began to emerge in the 1990s, and today is a widely-recognized specialty. The University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, for example, home of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection, now offers a certificate program in animal-assisted therapy.

Pickett believes Basil – who was trained through the Delta Society – is the only credentialed therapy animal actually working in a school-based health clinic in Colorado. But across the state many school therapists do connect children to off-campus animal-assisted therapeutic programs whenever possible.

About 50 Gunnison children got the chance to experience equine therapy this year through the Horses for Change Program.

“Whether it’s dogs or horses or rabbits, there is something about animals that brings out for most people – especially children – their softer side. They open up our hearts,” said Amanda Graham, program supervisor of the Gunnison office of the Midwestern Colorado Center for Mental Health, which provides mental health services in a six-county area of southwest Colorado.

Graham, a licensed professional counselor, also works with Horses for Change, a Gunnison-based horse therapy program that specializes trauma, anxiety, grief and loss in children as well as adults.

In the past year, Horses for Change worked with 45 to 50 local children at the Gunnison rodeo grounds, most of them having been referred by school professionals. Horses for Change is one of at least 15 programs in Colorado affiliated with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

“For a child whose heart may have been broken, having that unconditional love, that interaction with a creature that’s not judging them is so powerful,” Graham said. “Animals give complete, instant feedback. They don’t mince words. They don’t lie. Most children don’t either. They operate on levels that are very much alike.”

More than a warm hug

Beyond simply being a furry friend to hug, therapy animals are often used to teach socially awkward children desired behaviors. Graham, for example, has a whole series of on-the-ground horse-related activities – none of which involve actually riding an animal – that she uses with young clients.

The whole idea is to set up activities such as catching and haltering a horse that reflect the challenges children meet in their day-to-day lives.

“Many people liken this to a ropes course, where you learn cooperation and to face your fears. It’s the same with horses. Horses pick up our non-verbal language. If we’re being disruptive or not paying attention, horses will react to that. They reflect our own behavior to us. So if a boy is standing there in tears because the horse keeps walking away, that gives us the opportunity to say ‘What could you do differently? What’s working and what’s not?’”

Basil does the same thing with students in Sheridan. He’s especially good at teaching disruptive children about boundaries, Pickett said.

“I’ll ask a kid to teach Basil to sit,” she said. “They’ll work with him teaching him tricks, which Basil of course already knows. But if they try to crowd Basil, he won’t do what they ask. And that parallels their everyday life.”

Pickett says Basil is also good at working with children’s parents.

“When parents come in, and they’re experiencing stress, they’ll pet Basil and they’ll feel much more comfortable and at east talking to me.”

And, at luck would have it, Basil’s “office” is right across the hall from the clinic treatment room where children go to get immunization shots. The dog also helps out there a lot, too.

“If a kid is screaming, I’ll come in there with him, and they hug him and pet him. It helps them be less traumatized by the shots,” she said.

Potential downsides: allergies, liability issues

Certainly not all school-based health clinics are likely to get animals like Basil. Allergies may be an issue in some schools, as is liability insurance. Pickett has been able to successfully negotiate both those potential challenges for Basil.

“In the three years I’ve been doing this, I can only think of two students who couldn’t see Basil because of allergies,” she said. “And I had one boy who had an allergy but his parents were so supportive of this that he took Benadryl before seeing Basil.”

Pickett also will not allow children with a history of abusing animals to be around Basil. And, she likes to encourage pet-less families to think about adopting an animal if they can afford it.

“Pets in general can just help so many kids,” she said. “A lot of time a pet is the one secure being in a child’s life that they can relate to and trust. Having a pet is a healthy, helpful thing in a child’s life.”

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