What if your journey to psychological healing involved playing with puppies, or training pitbulls, or socialising cats, or stroking rabbits, or finding ways to communicate with a horse? Welcome to TheraTails, a groundbreaking animal-assisted psychotherapy programme for clients of all ages.
Most of us know from experience that interacting with animals can help with anxiety—it decreases heart rate, lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels and it increases your feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. However, beyond this there are countless other benefits to including animals in a therapeutic framework. The first and most obvious? Sessions feel like positive experiences. This increases the client’s trust, which improves their engagement and the possibility that the therapy will work. The TheraTails team can engage clients who have historically held a deep distrust of both therapy and therapists.
When it first launched, the TheraTails programme was aimed at providing trauma therapy for those who need it the most: those who have experienced multiple or chronic traumas and are unable to engage in traditional talking therapies. Now, TheraTails works with two main groups. The first is those who are either non-verbal or find traditional talking therapies too threatening. This includes clients with severe autistic spectrum conditions, intellectual (learning) disabilities, and those with highly disordered attachment (who often end up in the care system). The second group is those who need treatment for an embodied disorder such as trauma, disordered eating or addiction.
“When you watch a group of puppies play together, the play has a very clear purpose. They are learning how to be dogs. Play has the same function for humans—we learn how to be with others, to practise our social roles and to act out our feelings,” says animal therapist Eileen Thorne. Clinical psychologist Dr Laura Henagulph adds, “When a child suffers adverse childhood experiences such as systemic disadvantage or trauma, they don’t feel safe and they can’t trust others. With animal-assisted therapy, children and adolescents who might feel overwhelmed by one-on-one therapy can experience task-based sessions outdoors, helping other young creatures to overcome their fear and to play and train safely.” One area of success has been working with at-risk young people and having them socialise abandoned dogs. As Dr Henagulph notes, “They start to experience how fear and loneliness can look like aggression. Working with shelter animals, TheraTails can tap into themes of loss, abandonment, re-parenting and reparation with clients. The young people experience what it is like to help another creature achieve a goal through kindness and rewards rather than criticism and punishment. Our clients experience what it is like to collaborate and feel that they have a purpose.”
Depending on the client’s wishes and needs, they can choose to work with the animals actively or more mindfully. The reflective nature of equine-assisted therapy is often useful here. “During the Eagala sessions,” says Dr Henagulph, “the team and the client have had deep insights that many sessions of more conventional therapy have failed to elicit; it is a very powerful catalyst.”
TheraTails has now expanded to offer corporate and coaching programmes, usually in the form of half- or full-day workshops. Dr Henagulph explains: “How do people experience you? What kind of energy do you transmit? Questionnaires and categories may help you intellectually but how can you truly sense and feel what you bring to a team? Using the Eagala model or working with the dogs, we are able to observe the complex web of reciprocal interactions between humans and animals. We guide team members to use their visceral instincts about what works and what doesn’t.”
TheraTails was developed in 2019 by Dr Laura Henagulph (a clinical psychologist specialising in attachment disorders and executive director of Seaglass Clinical Consulting), Eileen Thorne (an animal therapist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer) and Kate Terceira (a certified Eagala Equine Specialist and executive director of the Bermuda SPCA). There are currently two main modalities practised at TheraTails: 1) Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy (AAP), which takes place with the dogs and cats, rabbits and small animals of the SPCA shelter, and 2) Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) using the international gold-standard Eagala model. TheraTails is financially supported by generous sponsorship from Third Point Re.
If you are interested in learning more, please reach out to Dr Laura Henagulph, firstname.lastname@example.org, 747-7778. You can also read more about animal-assisted therapy and the Eagala model at https://seaglass.bm/insights/