Animal Assisted Therapy

By Duanita G. Eleniak, MSW RCSW ATR BCATR RCAT

Dr. Duanita currently works in her studio and used to have two canine co-therapists and enjoyed dog assisted therapy as a specialization.

Nikki was a character who brought joy to people in seconds. He was a ten year old Jack Russell terrier crossed with a Chihuahua. In the playroom he was especially helpful with children who needed to learn how to laugh and play. He specialized in ‘fetch’ therapy, ‘chase me’ therapy, and ‘Nikki in the middle’. His early training in search and rescue came in handy in the playroom during “Search” games where he got to find treats. Nikki reported enjoying this work the best.

Angel was an 11 year old golden retriever who spent the first 8 years of her life helping blind people as a formally trained Seeing Eye dog. She came to the playroom upon her retirement several years ago.

Angel was especially gifted in giving love to all those who needed it (whether they wanted it or not). She was phenomenally astute in going up to a grieving person at just the right moment in order to facilitate expressions of loss within a strong container of caring. She gave her body for hugs freely to foster children and children in need of warmth and comfort who were often unable to accept such comfort from people.



A client recently emailed a note of gratitude to Nikki and Angel for the help that they gave her. She and her husband came in for crisis counselling during one of the most difficult times in a domestic adoption process. The baby had just been born and just a little bit early, before any official paperwork had been processed. Though everyone’s intentions in the situation were that the couple was to be the child’s adopted parents, the little one’s early birth and a stay at the hospital all made for a very complicated and highly anxious situation.

As the woman and her husband talked, Angel instinctively moved beside her and leaned up against her leg. In her note of gratitude to Angel the woman wrote about how significant this act on Angel’s part was to her. She spoke about how she felt herself ground through the weight of Angel’s body against her leg. She spoke about how comforting the warmth from Angel’s soft, furry body felt to her at a time where she felt she was going crazy with anxiety, despair, fear and concern that her much desired baby girl might not come to her.

She then spoke about how during all of the scary times in the whole process (in the hospital; in bed at night worrying that something might happen to prevent their adoption from going smoothly) she would remember this particular moment she had shared privately with Angel during her time in counselling. It was this kinetic memory of grounding through Angel’s body that she would rely on to keep herself from going crazy with worry and fear through the birthing process of their adoption.

Once the happy ending occurred and their new adopted baby was safely home with them this woman remembered the profound gift that Angel had given her and wrote to thank her for guiding her through the darkness of that part of their journey.


I remember the very day that a nine year old native girl sat on my couch in the playroom and asked me very seriously: “What is joy?” How do you explain a feeling like joy? How do you assist someone to feel joy when they are from such a deprived and abusive background that joy feels like some alien that they have never experienced.

As I sat there at a loss regarding how I might answer this question, Nikki, my canine-co-therapist jumped into action. Round and round and round he went, just at that moment deciding to chase his tail. I began to clap and sing the song which encourages him in his silliness.

The young client sat, at first just watching the silliness with very wide eyes. Then suddenly, as Nikki changed directions she began to giggle. As the song and the clapping and the dance continued the child was soon on her feet, laughing and chasing Nikki, who had proceeded to teach her how to play “Chase”.

As she plopped back on the couch after their game and gave a big contented sigh, I smiled back and said “Now there is the answer to your question. That is joy.”

Therapy Articles by Dr. Duanita

Child Art Therapy, Scribbles And Squiggles
Art Therapy With Children, Visioning Your Practice: An Activity
Dancing For Wellness, Expressive Therapy
How Do I Talk To My Children About Going To A Counselor?
Therapy Guidelines, Handling Disclosures Of Child Sexual Abuse, British Columbia, Canada

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