Is your child or adolescent on medication for their symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health diagnoses? Do you know anyone who’s child is? Do you know that these medications were designed for adults and not for children? And do you know that such medication could permanently change your child’s brain?
I have been working in children’s mental health for 25 years and continue to be astounded by the numbers of children I see who are taking adult psychotropic medications for their mental health symptoms. Psychotropic medications, including antidepressant, stimulant, and antipsychotic drugs, were designed primarily for adult usage only. There are many concerning facts regarding children taking these medications.
In 2015 the Canadian Institute for Health Information reported that children and youth who were diagnosed with serious mental health disorders were often prescribed psychotropic medications as a first-line intervention to their issues. Serious mental health disorders were considered to be: depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia.
There are very few tests conducted on the long-term effects of these medications on children’s developing brains. Although there have been many advances in psychiatric medicine, the studies on the effects of these medications have been mainly conducted on adults.
There are safety concerns about antidepressants in the pediatric population; increased suicidal ideation is the most concerning. Other adverse side effects of psychotropic agents include radical weight gain, increased blood pressure, blood fats and increased risk of diabetes (references below). Stimulant medication side effects include insomnia, reduction in appetite, irritability (Connor & Barkley, 2006) and growth suppression (Swanson et al., 2006). Safety for long-term use of any of these medications has not been extensively explored in children. There has also been very little research about the differential metabolizing of medications in children according to their gender, race and ethnicity.
In 2003-2004, the FDA and European Medicines Agency contraindicated Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) for treating depression in the younger population due to the increase in suicide risk that was found in young people taking these medications. SSRI’s are still the most popular medication given to young people today for a variety of issues.
Bottelier et al (2014) concluded that long-term effects of medication on children’s brains are possibly delayed, becoming present once the brain matures in adulthood. Also known as ‘neuronal imprinting,’ this refers to the process of a drug’s effects long outlasting the drug’s presence in the bloodstream. They recommend behavioral therapy as a likely safer and more effective treatment than medication for children and youth with mental health symptoms.
A three-year study conducted in the US by Dr. Susan dosReis, et al. (2014) concluded that approximately 12% of children age six and younger in foster care for one year or more received at least one psychotropic medication and that as they grew older, the amount of psychotropics they received increased with each year of age. The study found that the use of three or more psychotropic classes began among children as young as age four. They specifically determined that 13% of children less than four years old, 29% of four-year-olds and 58% of five-year-olds were receiving psychotropics with 77% receiving more than one. The results of the study suggested a trend toward what they called “chronic use” and they expressed concern about the effects of these medications on brain development, and metabolic adverse effects. Upon investigation, they also concluded that few patients received routine metabolic monitoring and that the literature about the effects of these medications long-term is scant. To offset these trends, they recommended an adequate trial of psychosocial treatment prior to psychotropic intervention and routine metabolic monitoring to minimize the risk of potentially life-long adverse effects of these medications. There is a critical need for long-term studies to evaluate the effect of chronic exposure on children’s health and well-being.
The National Youth in Care Network conducted a study around this time funded by Health Canada and discovered that another common concern was that many of the youth in care were being diagnosed with mental health disorders and prescribed psychotropics by a family doctor rather than a mental health professional. In many cases, they had never visited a child psychiatrist, psychologist or another doctor for a second opinion. This remains a fact for many of the children and youth in care in Alberta to date.
There has been evidence to support an increase of all psychotropic medications being prescribed to children and youth, whether they are in care or not, over the past three decades and this could be the result of overreliance on pharmacotherapy as a first-line treatment and/or use of these medications for unapproved diagnoses (Ninan, A. et al, 2014).
Not only have psychotropic medications not been designed for children nor are the long-term results of them clear but there are few of these medications that are approved by Health Canada for administration to anyone under 18 years of age. Reportedly, some doctors use a method called “off-label” to prescribe antidepressants for children with depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders and antipsychotics for children with ADHD, conduct disorders, aggression and other behavioral challenges (Kirkey, S. National Post, 2016).
In a nutshell and well said by Dr. Morris, J. and Stone, G. (2010), “there is little evidence available to warrant the widespread use of psychotropic drugs for children, and little long-term data regarding its long-term impact on development.” They further state that mental health medications were designed to treat adults, and that they are often “misused to treat children and adolescents.”
The news is not all bad. Although it is true that very young children are put on psychotropic medications that were initially designed for adults and that the long-term effects of these medications on their developing brains is not clear, it is also true that there is safety data for the short-term use of single medications used to treat many childhood psychiatric disorders (Walkup, J., 2009) and that these medications do alleviate symptoms and allow children to navigate their daily life more adeptly.
What is the best approach to treating children’s mental health symptoms? The preponderance of available evidence in child psychopharmacology indicates that psychosocial treatments (e.g., counselling, therapy, behavior management approaches) are the best first-line intervention in children’s mental health and recommend that these are tried before the introduction of psychotropic medications. It is also widely agreed upon that when these do not work or are not available, that a combination of medication and psychological treatment may be a reasonable approach.
Psychosocial treatments are the most recommended and effective treatments for mental health disorders in children Unfortunately, many communities lack skillful providers of such treatments and many provinces do not provide coverage to access these services under their healthcare models. If they did, this could potentially alleviate the constantly increasing numbers of children and youth receiving psychopharmacology treatments rather than skilled psychological assistance. This is the reality of why so many of our children and youth are receiving psychotropic medications. Due to it being the only treatment available in some cases, we acknowledge that, in these cases, psychopharmacology may be saving their lives.
In Alberta, I am part of a network of Psychologists called EPIC, Expert Psychologists Interagency Clinical Network (epicpsychology.net) who have petitioned the government to increase access to private psychologist practitioners. Through provision of first-line psychosocial intervention for our young people, it is expected that over-prescription of psychopharmacological treatment would decrease.
As parents or others who may be concerned about the impacts of adult psychotropic medications utilized in the treatment of children and youth, you can help by signing our Petition · Petition to provide Provincially Funded Psychological Services in Alberta · Change.org, by contacting your local member of parliament to advise of this issue, by lobbying for funding to be provided to test for the long-term impact of these medications on our young, by sharing this article and by querying your doctors for any information or research they may have about the effects of these medications on young people.
Given the expressed concerns by parents and the medical community about the increasing exposure of children to psychotropic medications, further scientific study of this issue is warranted, especially pertaining to the long-term effects on their developing brains.
CEO and Executive Director of Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy
March 11, 2020
This article is written for mental health therapists who are asked to write letters for people to have their pets with them in their residences, on air carriers and in public as their emotional support animals. Hopefully this information will help therapists to consider and navigate this issue ethically. It may not make some people happy but I have considered it for a long time before writing it and I believe that it is the right information to consider.
What is This About Emotional Support Animals and Letters?
As therapists, many of you may have been asked to write a letter for your client’s pet to be recognized as their “emotional support animal (ESA).” Or perhaps the person who has asked you is not your client but rather a person calling you because you are a credentialed, licensed therapist and the person is requesting you to write this letter for them due to their belief that having their pet with them at all times will support them with their emotions and ability to function in society.
If you have not been asked to do this yet, you likely will be at some point.
So what is all this about emotional support animals and letters? First of all, it is important to discuss what an emotional support animal is. An emotional support animal is a person’s pet that can support them emotionally wherever they go. The person must be deemed by a credentialed therapist or physician as having a DSM 5 diagnosis and then the professional must declare that due to the diagnosis, the person is in need of having their pet with them at all times as an Emotional Support Animal. This must be stated in a formal letter and then the animal can live in no-pet housing and fly on some air carriers in Canada in the cabin and not contained in a pet carrier. There are no laws or regulations around whether these animals are screened for their safety in the public and no formal training to do so is required. The person writing the letter most often has never met the pet and would not be qualified to screen it appropriately for its temperament or behavior unless they are an animal behavior expert in the species, which most therapists and doctors are not. This is not an issue as there is no law stating that it must be done this way.
There is copious research to support the fact that animals are good for people who are suffering from mental health issues. There is no dispute about this fact and I firmly believe that animals DO help people who are in need of support. The issue is not whether the animal is a good support for the person but rather: 1). The lack of regulation around declaring a person as suffering from a mental health disorder, 2). The lack of policies and protocols for declaring the animal as safe in public places and 3). The lack of attention to how the animal may feel if they are in busy places all day, on buses or wherever the person may go.
Other issues with Emotional Support Animals in public include the confusion the public experiences in understanding the difference between an animal who is for emotional support an animal who is trained as a service animal. Service animals are trained extensively to be safe in public as they are trained to support one person who depends on them to live and function. Service animals are trained to be quiet, well-behaved, unreactive to other animals and chaotic events in the public as well as to have the skills and knowledge to assist people with a diagnosed disability in many ways (for example, Seeing-Eye Dogs and the Blind). They allow people to live in community and to carry out daily tasks more independently and they are recognized in Canadian Provincial Law as having rights as they are under the human rights act https://open.alberta.ca/publications/s07p5 in many provinces. They are allowed into no-pet housing, on air carriers, in restaurants and hotels and many other places because of their high level of training and capacity to not cause disruption while supporting their person. They typically wear a vest and their process is formally extensive.
Emotional support animals are typically someone’s pet and unless the person goes through extensive screening, training and certification for their pet with a trained professional who can assure that the pet is safe in all public circumstances, the pet is possibly not safe in public. And if the pet is not safe, the public may not be either, nor the person the pet is there to support. These animals often also wear vests and hence the confusion of the public for the type of animal that is present.
Just a thought, but if the pet is emotionally supporting someone and it bites another person while out in the community or gets afraid of a loud noise and is cowering under the table, how will the person in need of support of the pet help the pet or navigate the situation?
ESAs do not have all the same rights as service dogs in Canada but they are allowed into some no-pet housing and on some air carriers. They get into public places like restaurants and other places because business owners are not informed about the differences in the types of animals in public these days. This is causing problems for people who are in dire of a service animal for their functioning. ESAs who do not manage their behavior in public places, bark incessantly or jump on people can lead to business owners banning animals from their premises, which affects the service animal folks.
So what are the ethical considerations for you as a therapist in writing letters for ESA’s?
Scenario 1: The person requesting the letter is your client. You know this client has a diagnosed mental health disorder. This part is easy. Your client asks you to write the letter so their animal can be identified as an ESA.
How can you avoid this from happening? One way is to include a clear statement in your informed consent that you are providing clinical services only and that you do not provide letters for ESAs.
Scenario 2: A person from outside your practice contacts you and asks you to write a letter for them to have an ESA.
Possible solution? This person enters into a clinical relationship with you so you can properly diagnose or confirm diagnosis. This still leaves the problem of ensuring their animal is safe for public access unless you are an animal behavior expert in the species of your client’s pet and also opens that door of possible harm to the client if, in the end, you determine that the pet is not safe as an ESA.
Writing letters for ESAs could possibly be considered outside the scope of many therapists practice or competence, could have ethical ramifications and could interfere with our service to our clients and to the general public.
All of this does not even consider the animal involved. What if the animal is sensitive to large crowds of people, has transportation issues or does not get along with other animals it may meet in its journeys? If it is suddenly accompanying its owner on all excursions, it may take a toll on the animal’s health and welfare.
As therapists, we have an obligation to our clients and to the general public to do no harm. If we are writing letters for people to bring their pets into the community with or without screening, training and certification to support them emotionally for their DSM 5 diagnosis, we may not be honoring our obligations.
The laws in our country pertaining to ESAs require development and strengthening. In the meantime, it is best for us as therapists to stick to what we know and be cautious about treading into the deep waters this issue lurks in regarding questionable scope of practice and attesting to things we cannot be sure will actually assist our clients and protect them or the public from harm.
If you still want to write letters for ESAs, according to Clay (2016), the letter should be composed of several parts:
I am a huge supporter of the positive impact animals have on people’s mental health. I am an animal assisted therapist and have been practicing with animals to support people’s mental health and clinical treatment for 18 years. I fully support people having their ESAs in their homes but I do not write letters or encourage people to take their animals from their homes into the public to support them. There are just too many ethical issues at stake for the client, the animal and the public.
If my professional opinion is that my clients would absolutely benefit from having their pet with them at all times, I recommend them to get a service animal as these animals can be properly trained to support them while keeping them and everyone around them safe wherever they may go. The research also supports the fact that service animals provide long-term therapeutic support to people with disabilities and mental health diagnoses (Rodriguez, et. al., 2019)
In the United States, the Human-Animal Interactions in Counselling through the American Psychological Association has a position statement on this issue which reads as follows:
“Counselors only work within their boundaries of competence based on education, training, supervision, experience and credentials. As Licensed Professional Counselors, the assessment of DSM 5 diagnoses for human clients is within the scope of practice; however, the added practices of animal behavior, animal behavior assessment, or Human-Animal Interventions and Interactions are (most often) not. Emotional Support Animals may, in some specific circumstances, provide benefits to humans to ameliorate identified symptoms often associated with a DSM 5 diagnoses; however, because of the potential risks and unanticipated outcomes, the HAIC strongly suggests that counselors abstain from writing letters for persons seeking counseling or assessment for the sole purpose of obtaining an ESA recommendation letter.”
I couldn’t have said it any better myself and since we adopted the whole concept of Emotional Support Animals from the US, I recommend we adopt this solution to the problem that ESAs are now causing in the US which is extending to us. Rather than us as therapists taking all the responsibility for the ESAs, let’s lean on our government to put regulations in place to protect everyone involved.
June 7, 2021
January 25, 2021
The 3 Agendas of the Triangle Model of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)
I recently read an article entitled “What Horses Teach Us About Systemic Oppression” by Julia Alexander and it resonated with me in regard to this article about the ‘3 agendas in AAT’ that I have been wanting to write for some time now.
Funnily enough, I was going to write the article yesterday, but it was a freezing cold -26 degrees here in Northern Alberta and so my own agenda morphed into having to catch and blanket the horses rather than write about them. It was after I chased them around trying to convince them that the blanket was a good thing that I then came back and saw that article and I had to laugh out loud. Here, I was going to write about respecting the animals in AAT and the importance of being fully aware of the fact that they have their agenda which is not your agenda or your client’s agenda. I was going to write about how we need to ethically ensure we are considering all 3 agendas in the work and to not be allowing our human agendas to lead the session against the animal’s will. And then I chased my mini donkey around the property and finally half lassoed him to get his blanket on. I gave up on my Shetland pony and my Connemara because they refused to be caught and so I allowed them to make the choice to not wear a blanket although it was going to be steep -30’s overnight – so who did I do the right thing by?
Did I do the right thing by the donkey I forced to wear his blanket or by the two horses I allowed to refuse to wear them simply because I gave up trying? I guess if we think about systemic oppression, it does not apply to forcing someone to do something that is for his own good or to do something that he will not decide to do on his own but could be a matter of his life or death, if he is in your care.
When I think of this in the context of AAT, I think of it on two levels: One level includes the need to ‘force’ an animal to undergo things s/he may not like or want to do to ensure his/her health and wellness and the other level is regarding the agendas that we have as therapists and clients in the medium of AAT. Part of the reason we have to maintenance animals in our care is because they are in our care, simply put. When we bring animals into our AAT practices, we become their advocates, their providers, their ambassadors and we are responsible for all tenets of their welfare. If we do not catch them to trim their feet, do health and wellness checks, give vaccines or medications and/or first aid when needed, then we are not meeting our ethical obligation to care for them. But what if they just don’t want to work the day your client chooses them in your AAT practice? What if their health and welfare is not at stake and it is more of a mood or a choice to do something else that is influencing their refusal to be part of your session? Are they allowed to say no?
This is where the 3 agendas come in and also possibly animal oppression. Let’s do this through an example:
Josh is attending therapy because his mother died and his father is hoping he can express his feelings through working with your horses. Josh has been to traditional therapy and many counselling practices but the mediums have not been effective to get him to open up to anyone yet. Josh is an avid animal lover and his father is hoping that by working with the animals, Josh will be more comfortable and the AAT psychologist who specializes in grief work can help him to process his deep grief.
You are that therapist and you have a horse who is very quiet and gentle by nature. Josh has no experience working with horses and this horse would be perfect for him to begin sessions with. Josh is very excited to brush this horse. When you and Josh go toward the horse, it turns and walks away, indicating that it may not wish to be caught. Here are 3 possible agendas at play: 1. Your agenda is to build rapport with Josh through working with your horse, 2. Josh’s agenda is to brush the horse, 3. The horse’s agenda is to go for a walk, likely toward the food and without you or Josh. What is the best ethical approach to helping Josh in this moment?
There are many ethical options. First off, you could address the horse’s behavior in the context of the horse being a sentient being and having her own thoughts, feelings, wants and needs. You can ask Josh what he thinks you both should do. This would give you a good indication of Josh’s awareness, understanding and depth of empathy; his ability to problem solve; the level of his frustration tolerance and many more important social skills. In doing this, you would be meeting your agenda, which is to build rapport and get to know Josh and you would be meeting the horse’s agenda, as she gets to go off and eat but you wouldn’t be meeting Josh’s agenda as he wanted to brush the horse. Secondly, you could catch the horse and bring her back to brush her, meeting both yours and Josh’s agendas but not the horse’s.
So how can you meet the 3 agendas? Let’s say that the horse was going toward the food. Perhaps you can suggest to Josh that he get some food to offer her to see if she will choose to be with him rather than out in the pasture? If she does, then she gets to eat while you teach Josh to brush her and build rapport. All 3 agendas will have been met!
As a psychologist who has been working in the medium of AAT for 18 years and who offers a certification in AAT and Animal Assisted Wellness (AAW) to helping professionals, it is my professional opinion that we should always be striving to meet the 3 agendas when working with animals in practice. When we partner with animals, we are partnering with a helper in our work who has their own thoughts, feelings, wants and needs and we need to notice these, honor them and meet them as much as is possible and at all times. It is not ethical to not consider our animal’s preferences, likes or dislikes when we are working with them and it is not ethical to not drop our agenda or convince our client to drop theirs if our agendas are disrespecting or dishonoring the agendas of our animals.
I might go so far as to say, now that I read Ms. Alexander’s article, that we may be ‘oppressing’ our horse or therapy animals if we ‘force’ them to do what we want them to do in AAT whether it be because of our personal agenda of that of our client. It is true that horses easily bend to our will when we really want them to or when we behave in certain ways. In fact, in AAT, we are often bigger than many species of animals and we can ‘force’ them to meet our agendas as well if we are so inclined.
It is true that there are ways to get our animals to want to comply with our agendas but often, we have to work harder to ensure this is actually done or we have to ‘give in’ to their agenda in some cases. There are many people who have much pre-knowledge of working with animals before partnering with them in professional AAT practice. It is our due diligence to ensure that we are checking in on our thoughts, beliefs and values of animals before we practice with them and during every single AAT session that we conduct as there is a very good chance that our preconceived notions and pre-lived experiences will be influencing our decisions for what is happening as per our agenda or the agenda of the session. If in fact, we are moving ahead with our human agendas without consideration for our therapy animals’ agendas, then we are very most likely practicing animal oppression rather than animal assisted therapy.
Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy www.dreamcatcherassociation.com
As dreams are the brain's way of making sense of our lives and the events we experience, it is not unusual for us to be dreaming about Covid. Are you?
I am. Not every night but every now and then I have a dream that I am in a crowded place and there is no masking, everyone is touching everything and everyone is hugging - GAH! It is typically a public place, like a bar or a restaurant, but a VERY BUSY one and there is no way to avoid being touched or to avoid touching all things the others are touching. Last night it was a restaurant. I was supposed to meet a friend and I got there first. There was an Irish band playing and they came and sat at my table and I loved it! But then I thought: "JIIICHE! These guys were on a plane, flyin all over the world, hobnobbin wit people from all over!" Not only could I catch Covid from them but I apparently had caught their accent too...
I was suddenly uncomfortable and didn't want to be there. I wanted to leave but my friend didn't arrive yet and I didn't have a phone (of course - as dreams go). Then I became fascinated by all the people dancing together and the slimy substance that was on the floor. Then I realized they were in their bare feet and I wondered: "Can Covid get absorbed through your feet?" - WHAT??!! Gross, I woke up, lol.
I'm sure this dream had something to do with the movie about addictions I watched on the weekend combined with the reality of the world's circumstance and the impact it has had on us. It was not a bad dream and if Covid wasn't in it, it would have been a great dream. The band was amazing and I was looking forward to a nice dinner date with my friend, which it would have been, if it wasn't for Covid.
Covid dreaming is normal as Covid is now part of our ever day life and has been for almost a year. How disturbing the dreams are, whether or not they are nightmares or interrupting your ability to sleep well, or function well, can indicate the impact Covid is having on you.
Are you Covid dreaming?
Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy is a psychology practice that integrates screened and certified animals into its profession of helping people. At Dreamcatcher, we conduct both animal assisted therapy (AAT) and equine facilitated counselling (EFC) and learning (EAL).
Something happened in a session here and I used it as an example of transference / countertransference (t/c) in a team training. Then I thought: “I should write an article about this.” When I sat down to write the article, it occurred to me that it may not have been t/c that happened in the session. I had to stop and think about it. I wondered: “If it wasn’t c/t, was it projection?” As it is something that happens often in sessions and is one of the reasons we work with animals in practice, I think it is worth exploring. So here is what happened.
We were asked to assist a young girl to develop her emotional awareness and to learn to communicate more effectively. Her parents requested that she go into our skill building program rather than be enrolled in our counselling program. The difference is that in skill building, we do not do counselling, we do not process traumatic events and we do not help people to recover from their losses or process their grief. In skill building, we help people learn to understand their feelings, to build awareness of the impact of their behavior on other people, to develop healthy and safe boundaries and overall, to learn about themselves while establishing functional patterns for navigating their social relationships.
The girl was attending one of her first equine-assisted sessions with our skill building interventionist. They were working one-on-one and had included our horse Echo. When the girl, who we will call Annica, led Echo into the barn with her interventionist, who we will call Marla, Echo appeared to be quiet, calm, cooperative and willing to spend time with Annica and Marla. He stood solidly on four feet with his head down, eyes and ears relaxed and almost on the verge of what looked like a nap.
Marla, standing on one side of Echo, handed a brush over to Annica who was on the other side of him. Annica began brushing the horse while Marla began to check in on how Annica’s week had been. Suddenly, Echo began to move his feet, his head went high and his eyes were wide. Marla knew Echo well and she quickly took control of the situation so that all three of them could remain safe. Annica had stopped brushing and was now standing up against the fence, her eyes large and brimming with tears. Marla checked in with herself: “What was that? Was there a noise? A movement? Is it me? Am I feeling uneasy or emotional?” Echo was a sensitive horse and sometimes he was very responsive to subtle changes in his environment, including shifts in emotion of the people around him. “Nope.” Marla thought: “It’s not me and I didn’t notice anything happening in here or outside that could have triggered Echo’s response.” She looked over at Annica, who was now squatted down against the fence, curling into what looked like a small human ball. She went to her and said: “Annica. Are you ok? Did something happen?” Annica then told Marla about a very bad thing that happened to her many years ago. Something that was going to require counselling and a transfer to the other program with a skilled therapist.
So what happened with Echo? Why did he suddenly startle and become anxious? According to Annica, brushing Echo made her remember the very unsettling event she had survived and while she felt herself becoming ‘upset,’ Echo started to move. Is it possible that Echo was reacting to Annica’s feelings? Was he sensing her emotional distress? Or did he notice a shift in her posture? Did she change the way she was brushing him which made him uncomfortable? The answer is: “I don’t know” but I do know that something happened that he noticed and it is a great coincidence that it happened at the exact same time that Annica was becoming emotionally dysregulated.
When this happens in EFC, it has been referred to by some authors as a form of biofeedback that is being provided to the client by the animal. What this means is that the animal displays concrete and visible behaviors in response to the client’s invisible emotions, or changes in their physiology, that they may or may not be aware of and that the interventionist is not aware of because the client does not show obvious changes in their state or disclose these feelings. Therapists and interventionists skilled in working with animals believe this happens often and claim that it is one of the most powerful aspects of including animals in the work of helping people.
By definition, biofeedback is the technique of using visual or auditory feedback from electronic instruments to gain control over involuntary bodily functions such as blood flow, blood pressure, heart rate, skin temperature, muscle tension and brain activity. When biofeedback was first introduced, it was referred to as ‘a real-time physiological mirror’ (Sattar & Valdiya, 2017).
So, in EFC, when people refer to the response of an animal to someone’s emotions or physiological shifts as “biofeedback,” they are referring to the animal as a biofeedback mechanism. When the animal displays a behavioral reaction, appears to escalate emotionally or becomes seemingly ‘unsettled,’ the interventionist checks in to this moment with herself to determine if she is feeling anything unsettling and discerns whether there is something in the environment that could have caused the ‘shift’ in the animal’s internal states. If neither of these are possible causes, she then checks in with the client to determine if the animal is possibly reacting to the client’s physiological state, hence acting as a biofeedback device.
Is this what was happening with Echo and Annica? He detected a change in her emotional state and so he mirrored it back to her? According to Wikipedia, “mirroring is the subconscious replication of another person's nonverbal signals.” From neuroscientific research, we know that all humans and animals (including horses) have “mirror neurons” and in the human experience, these cause us to feel sad when we see someone cry, embarrassed for those who are humiliated and happy when others are smiling or laughing. This is referred to as Resonance (Sheade, 2016) and as Limbic Resonance by Lewis, et al, 2001 which refers to the emotional connection formed through relational experiences between beings. So, was Echo resonating with Annica’s physiology? Going back to my first thought, is this a form of transference / countertransference that was happening between Annica and Echo? And is this what happens when we experience countertransference in session? When we become agitated or emotionally dysregulated or behave or think differently in response to something our client is saying or doing, we have come to know this as “countertransference” in session but is it because our mirror neurons are firing and causing our reactions?
Some of the writing I found claimed that horses have “millions” of mirror neurons, far more than humans, dogs or cats and that is why they are so adept at “reading our emotions” and responding to them. I couldn’t find the scientific evidence to support this, although it sounds cool. As horses are prey animals with almost 360-degree vision, they are acutely adept at reading changes in their environment and it could be that Echo was responding to Annica’s postural changes or breathing as she recalled her traumatic events.
I think regardless of how he did it, it appeared that Echo picked up on Annica’s distress far before Marla did. As I come to the end of my pondering, I conclude that it, in fact, is countertransference as by definition, countertransference happens when the therapist has unusual feelings or behaviors in response to the client’s verbalizations or behaviors (Schwartz, 2019). In this case, Echo, the co-counsellor in the session, demonstrated his own behavioral reactions (possibly caused by his emotional dysregulation) that may have been in response to Annica’s non-verbal emotional dissonance, demonstrating a type of countertransference in the true fashion of a biofeedback mechanism and possibly through his mirror neurons!
I look forward to your thoughts!
What a great question! Thanks Sandy Sturdy for asking for this topic to be discussed here on our blog!
I will start with the chickens:
Our amazing and long-term administrative staff Jessica travelled to Ponoka, Alberta and then Okotoks approximately 4 years ago to purchase a bunch of extraordinary and really cool chickens! They included our chickens Michael Jackson/David Bowie, Clancy, Batman, Mushroom and a whole bunch more. One of them, a giant Cochin, we named Tanya and it turned out that she was a rooster! Lol, she was quickly renamed to T-Rex because he was as big as a dinosaur! (Not really but, you know ;)). Through the years, Jess, who is an extraordinarily knowledgeable person about chickens, has been arranging some cool breeding patterns and now all the rest of the chickens you meet at Dreamcatcher were hatched here and are the offspring of these beautiful exotic breeds.
One chicken in particular, Bubs, was hatched by two moms. Unfortunately, they both wanted to sit on her to keep her warm and in the process, they injured her. Our volunteer coordinator, Emily, took her home and nursed her back to health for 3 months. Bubs is an amazing chicken who loves to snuggle humans and she is very much Emily's 'child.' Because of her early life injuries, she gets ill sometimes and when she is not feeling well, she goes home with Emily who makes her feel all better again.
Our Rabbit: Bobbles
We had two rabbits, Binky and Bobbles and they are named after my cousins in Newfoundland. Binky recently got sick and passed away. We are not sure what happened. Bobbles still lives in the chicken coop and in the summer, he has his own houses in the outdoor coops. Binky and Bobbles were given to us by my step-son and his wife, Alex and Alyssa Stepanov. They own the Pet Values in Spruce Grove and Stony Plain and donated these friendly bunnies to us!
Moonshine: Mini Donkey
Moonshine was made special for us! Cindy Gilette, who gave us our horse Rain and are (now deceased) llama Spitzy, made Moonshine for us! When she saw what Rain and Spitzy were doing for a living over here, she said: "I'm gonna make you a donkey!" And she did! She owns a farm in Tofield and at that time, bred mini donkeys. How cool is that?
Ceilidh (pronounced: Kaylee) was given to us by Sue McIntosh of the Healing Hooves program. I helped Sue with some children's groups/camps and fell in love with her donkeys. She loved them too but agreed to give them to me and so I brought Ceilidh and her sister Daisy home with me (her name was Maisey but i changed it). Daisy passed away last year but Ceilidh is going strong. Her name is Gaelic, as Sue is Scottish and I too, am from Scottish descent. In my culture in Cape Breton, a Ceilidh is a kitchen party. It's so cool that Moonshine and Ceilidh hang out on a regular basis as in my culture, that happens often back home! lol
As mentioned, Rain was given to us by Cindy Gilette. Cindy had rescued Rain from a breed farm where they likely would have taken Rain to the auction due to her ears being frostbitten. She was a yearling when Cindy rescued her and she came to live at Dreamcatcher shortly thereafter. Rain will be 19 this year.
Echo was given to us by our farrier, Derek Inverarity. His partner had been his groom at the racetrack when he was just 2 years old and when he injured his knee, they sold him to her for a dollar. She took him home but her horse was not nice to him and so he came to live here. Echo was 4 years old then...he will be 21 this year.
Romeo was given to us by a lady who's daughter used to ride him / jump him. She outgrew horses and moved into cheerleading and so the lady wanted him to go to a good home and she chose us. Romeo was 9 when he came to us and he is now going on 11.
Wanda came to live here because her brother Joey (now deceased) had been rescued here and he needed a goat friend so the farmer took Wanda from her twin sister and mother and gave her to us. She was only 3 months old. Wanda is now going on 4 years old. 1.5 years ago, a male goat named Jupiter was born here at Dreamcatcher and he gave Wanda her twin boys Sully and Oliver. They will be 2 years old this April.
Luna was given to us by a goat farmer and she was pregnant when she arrived. She had the baby Jupiter and as goats do, Jupiter gave Luna another baby named Orion. Orion will be 2 years old this year.
Stardust was given to us by the same goat farmer as Luna and she was also pregnant when she arrived. She lost her fist baby but then Luna's Jupiter gave her another one, Nova. Nova will be 2 years old this year.
Emma was given to us by a lady who was moving from her acreage and needed a home for Emma.
Ellie was given to us by our mechanic and fellow farmer, Sydney Gonzalez. None of us knew that Ellie was pregnant when she arrived but lo and behold, one day the staff sent a picture of a baby standing next to Ellie in the shelter. Although we thought the clever staff had photoshopped it, it turned out that Ellie had a baby overnight!! We properly named him Sydney after his sheep farming donor!!!
Ninja was rescued by the Barrhead humane society as someone had dropped her off in Parkland County. The story goes that she was with 9 kittens when they found her and she was only 9 months old. At the same time, Dreamcatcher was asked to choose and prepare a cat for a treatment facility for children and youth and as we had a connection to the Barrhead society, we ended up with Ninja. The deal fell through and the facility no longer wanted the cat so Dreamcatcher became her forever home. Ninja is 3 years old this year.
Shadow is exactly that and not seen by many as she is feral and lives under our office. She showed up here one day and then had 9ish kittens. We took them all to the humane society and they adopted most of them out but gave her back to us. She lives with us and elsewhere lately but can still be seen slinking around and sometimes will let people get close to her but not very often.
Gravy: Mini Horse
Gravy was living with some older people who had him for their grandchildren. When the grandchildren outgrew him, he went to live with a kind family who got him a wife named mashed potatoes. In the end, Gravy was alone at their farm and so they sold him to us so he could have a forever home with friends.
Teddybear: Mini Horse
Teddybear was living with a family nearby and he was often the pony party when the little kids he lived with had a birthday. Teddy did not like this anymore and would not let the children ride him so the family donated him to us and although we never let anyone ride him, he still seems quite uncertain of people. He has found his forever home though and helps many people who are also not sure of people.
And that is the Dreamcatcher Therapy Animal crew!
Hello and Happy Valentines Day! This is an extremely celebratory weekend for us all! We kicked it off With Chinese New Year, had a day of rest, are now celebrating Valentine's Day and tomorrow is Family Day. Yay! So much to celebrate and so much love!
So the question posed for the Blog was: "What is the process to be trained to work at Dreamcatcher?" And the answer is soooo exciting!
First of all, after 17 years and 8 months, Dreamcatcher has evolved to be able to offer employment in a variety of ways to a variety of people. I will attempt to break it down by categorizing the positions we currently have and how we ensure people are adequately trained for the job.
1. Therapists - to work as a Dreamcatcher therapist, one must have a Master's degree in psychology, social work or counselling. Preference is given to those who are registered psychologists and training can be provided for those in other professions (i.e., social work) as they are required to follow the psychologists code of ethics. Social workers on the Clinical Registry are preferred. These therapists are skilled in working with complex cases and if not, they are trained to do so once they begin employment through consultation and supervision. They must have an affinity for animals and for being outdoors and if they are not already trained in animal assisted or equine facilitated therapy, they must undergo training (could be on the job) in these mediums. They are included in formal Dreamcatcher courses, workshop and internship trainings to learn about our animals, our process, the ethics of the mediums and much more.
2. Behavior Specialists or Interventionists - typically, these staff have an undergraduate degree in psychology, child and youth care, social work, rehabilitation practitioner, life coaching or something similar. They are skilled in behavior management and pre-trained to work with people who my have special needs and require skill building for functional living. The are adept at working with families and at providing strategies for assisting families and the individual to work effectively toward their goals. They must have an affinity for animals and for being outdoors and if they are not already trained in animal assisted or equine facilitated interventions (AAI's), they must undergo training (could be on the job) in these mediums. Formal training in working in AAI within their scope of practice is provided.
3. Animal Handlers - these helpers can come from a variety of backgrounds and assist in a variety of ways. For the most part, they are have an affinity for animals and the outdoors and work well in teams or groups. If they do not have experience with animals, they can begin becoming familiar with Dreamcatcher through volunteering, observing our work with animals and people, spending time with our animals and then undergoing formal training to handle our animals in sessions, groups, camps or special events.
4. Group, camp or special event staff - this can be a combination of therapists from different specialties (i.e., art, music, somatic, etc.), interventionists and animal handlers and the training they require is to be expert in their specialty first and foremost and then training at Dreamcatcher in animal handling and AAI's is provided to understand how to facilitate or assist within these contexts.
There are many more positions at Dreamcatcher as we evolve, some of which include volunteer coordinator, marketer, editor, videographer, administrators, tourism staff, academy course developers and instructors, dog trainers, horsemanship experts, practicum students and much more!
Thank you Ashely for your awesome question! I hope I answered it as I got way too excited and might have gone off track!
I hope you have an awesome long weekend and I look forward to answering any other questions anyone has! Yay! I love Blobbing!
I am sooooo excited that we now have a Blog!!! I love to Blob, I mean Blog. My sister once called my facebook ramblings my "Blob" by accident....but was it an accident??? Hahahaha
Well, I can't wait to start this process and it has been years in the making. We shall see how this process goes! I welcome comments, suggestions for content, ideas, interests and questions. Let's get started!