Working with victims of physical, sexual and mental abuse is an area filled with difficultly. It becomes even harder when dealing with children.
Mary Jo McVeigh, a counsellor and child trauma expert, is the founding principal of Cara House, which helps children dealing with trauma. In addition to traditional counselling, the clinic offers special sessions with a loveable Spoodle (poodle cross cocker spaniel) named Toby.
Toby is the canine clinical lead at Cara House. He’s been helping trauma survivors for 5 years and an integral part of the work done at Cara House. It’s very difficult for a child who has been traumatised by abuse to trust people, especially adults.
“We work through Toby, we say what would Toby be feeling, what would Toby be thinking… this encourages children to take on a caring role for Toby and vice versa.”
According to the Australian Institute of Family studies, there were 46,187 claims of child abuse across Australia in the 2009-2010. Experts say this is a conservative number because many cases are never reported.
“Relationships for these children are a dangerous place because it was in their important relationships that they were hurt,” said McVeigh. “Toby has a more purposeful use; the children begin to talk emotionally through him.”
“Being able to note Toby’s emotions and say things like, ‘Oh is Toby barking because he’s being protective of us or what’s Toby saying?'” said McVeigh. “That allows children, who can’t talk about their emotions to talk about them through him”.
The use of animals in therapy, especially dogs, is becoming increasingly common. In June, a New York court allowed a 15 year old rape victim to have a ‘comfort dog’ while she testified against her father.
Professional dog trainer Steve Austin believes dogs are underused in many areas of society and could become main-stream in helping child abuse victims.
“In my opinion, we have used 15-20% of the canine’s ability. With a canine, the fact that they’re just with you is enough for them, they’re a very giving animal,” he said.