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How's Our Future Looking?

One of the things that I have been focusing on a lot during this quarantine is what the future holds for Wags for Wellness. If you've looked through the services page on our website, you've already seen that individual, family and group counseling is offered. Currently all I am able to do is online counseling while I am quarantined, and will start back up once I return from this deployment. I'm really looking forward to be able to start helping the community with mental health recovery!

One other thing that is featured on our services page is "Work with Dog Shelters". Now that I've had more time to think and develop, I'd like to speak to that a little bit, and describe what I envision that is going to look like. This is going to be a pilot program, more research focused to see exactly what the benefit is of including dogs in the mental health recovery process. Of course, not everyone will qualify for the program, as they will have to meet certain criteria in order to be able to participate. The program will include a series of phases that includes mental health counseling, establishing lifestyle changes, adopting a dog, and receiving additional training and support post adoption. The goal of this program is to encourage the effective use of dogs as emotional support animals.

I know I've shared this story before, but I will share it again in hopes that others will understand both my motivation to develop this program, as well understand that obtaining an animal for "emotional support" involves so much more than they think it does. Due to client confidentiality, I will not be providing specific details or names of the individuals that were involved. A few years into my counseling experience, I had a client come in for an intake appointment. She was seeking a letter for her dog, claiming that it was an "emotional support animal" and that her landlord was not going to allow the dog due to a no pet policy. Typically in my practice, I do not write letters for emotional support animals. At the time, I was not educated in the process, nor was I comfortable writing such a letter for someone that I had just met for the first time. I eventually agreed to write a letter asking the landlord to allow the client to keep the dog until we could assess effectiveness of the dog to the client's mental health recovery. At our next session, I learned a lot more about the client's inability to care for the dog, along with evidence that she may have also been abusing the dog. Upon attempting to provide education to the client, she became angry, irate and stormed out of my office. I never saw her again, despite multiple attempts to schedule another appointment.

After this incident I felt terrible about myself. I couldn't believe that I had just written a letter for someone that I knew very little about, and that I had allowed that person to manipulate me into doing it. Unfortunately I have no idea what happened to that dog, nor could I report it due to confidentiality concerns. Shortly after that I began researching emotional support animals and how common and easy it is for someone to obtain and "emotional support animal" letter from a clinician. There really isn't much guidance as far as what the client should be doing and how the animal should be utilized for emotional support. People can literally just go online and buy one of these letters. They will get a dog for "emotional support" and have no idea how to care for the animal, how to train it, or even worse, use the animal as a substitute for working through their problems and developing coping skills that intrinsic.

The program that I will be piloting will be a multiple phase program aimed at assisting clients in obtaining emotional support dogs, but the correct way. There will be certain criteria that the client has to meet before we even start talking about getting a dog. The appropriate client for this program would preferably be a veteran (since that is the population I specialize in), however other clients may be considered as well. The client must have a diagnosable mental health condition and either already seeing a therapist or willing to participate in therapy. Certain diagnoses would not be appropriate for this program, but that will be elaborated on once the program gets rolling.

The program will first focus on making sure the client is financially, physically and emotionally stable enough to care for an animal. Built similar to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we need to ensure that if someone is going to be adopting a dog, they need to have their basic needs met before they can meet the basic needs of an animal. Phase 1 will include financial counseling and budget creating. It will also include education on what is required to own a dog. Phase 2 will include mental health counseling. This will include developing adequate coping skills, and establishing a routine of self care that will be conducive to owning a dog. If a client is already seeing a therapist elsewhere, then they will have to agree to communication and progress reports. Phase 3 will involve work with dog shelters, trying to find a dog that will match the personality and needs of the client, to ensure that the dog will be an adequate supplement to mental health recovery. Once a client finds a dog they would like to adopt, then we will follow the criteria and procedures established by the shelter to get the dog adopted. Phase 4 will then include some basic obedience training for the dog and the client. Phase 5 will include follow up appointments for continued support, as well as continued therapy/communication with the client's therapist.

I am so excited to start writing the curriculum for this program, as well as see what the results will be! Until then, I will continue to check back in on a regular basis throughout this deployment to see how everyone is doing.

Let's hear your thoughts! Is this a program that you think the Quad Cities could use?

As always, be well and wag on!

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