Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On Therapy Pets

On one of my clinical psychology practice list serves, the question came up about whether any members used therapy pets in their private practices. One specific issue raised in the post was how to be sensitive to clients with animal allergies if you kept a pet in your office, which is, of course, a very legitimate concern.  I used to have a therapy pet in my office in San Antonio.  It was a Chinchilla named "Neo".  Chinchillas are pretty hypoallergenic so the issue of allergies wasn't especially relevant.  Plus, he lived in a cute cage shaped like a little house and we would only take him out when clients wanted to hold or pet him.  He was a great incentive for my teen aged clients to participate because getting to play with Neo became a great positive reinforcer.  However he was really messy so I ultimately found him a new home because cleaning up after him just became too time consuming.  I had a brightly colored little crate I carried him from home to office in.  He was well known at the supermarket and OfficeMax because I couldn't leave him in the car when I ran errands on my way home from work.  I'd put his crate in the seat of the shopping cart and we would run my errands together. 

In San Antonio, I had several clients who really liked bringing their dogs with them to therapy sessions.  Of course, this could potentially have been an issue for other clients coming in with dog allergies but this never came up.  Now that I live in Colorado, people seem to bring their dogs everywhere.  Even the bank has dog biscuits on the counter instead of lollipops for the people!  Every restaurant has a water bowl outside for the dogs who wait patiently for their owners while they eat.

For the first time in my career, I have a home based practice.  While my office is at the front of my home, it is still in my home.  I have a medium sized westie-poodle mix and two cats.  The cats hide under the bed when clients are here so they are obviously not willing to be therapy pets of any kind.  I was initially putting my dog in the mud room when clients came so they wouldn't be bothered.  Believe it or not, this really bothered my clients!  Every one of them wanted to meet my dog and didn't want my dog locked up on their account.  Now, my dog comes and greets them while they are waiting to see me.  She has become my pseudo-receptionist!  

I keep the dog out of my therapy office so she is not a distraction but if a client (particularly a teen) wanted her there, I would allow her in.  So far, I haven't raised the allergy issue with new clients although I do tell them that my office is in my home before they schedule their first appointment.  So far, everyone seems to assume that I have a dog.  Many of them come with their dogs and leave them in the car in the shade with the windows open while we meet.  Occasionally their dog goes out in the yard to play with my dog.  Of course, this will probably change when it gets colder and snows.

I think this is all really ironic because I am a cat person and I can't quite believe I even have a dog.  I never expected her to be a business asset.  

When a new client brings up the allergy issue, I will offer them online psychotherapy instead.  A highly respected psychologist named Ken Pope, PhD, with whom I am acquainted, keeps therapy cats in his office.  When a potential client has a cat allergy he offers to see them in their home.  The Vail Valley is too spread out for me to offer that routinely but I would consider it as an option as well.

BTW, this all started with a fish tank.  I set up a pretty tank in my first private practice office because it was soothing.  However, I am really bad at keeping fish alive.  One day a particularly difficult 11 year old came in and in a hostile tone of voice said "your fish is dead."  I had just fed the fish a few minutes earlier and before I could stop myself I fired back "No he's not!"  But he was.  Then the kid said "You are traumatizing me with your dead fish."  And then we both cracked up.  I didn't replace the fish and I gave away the tank.  And then I got Neo the chinchilla (see first paragraph).

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Text copyright 2012 by Jill Squyres, PhD.  All Rights Reserved

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