Animals Offer a Therapeutic Paw: WCMHS Employs Calming Critters

By Tim Simard

Aspen the Dog. Photo by Tim Simard

Aspen and Bode are two of a kind. One’s a dog and the other’s a cat, but for all intents and purposes, they are as close as siblings. Aspen, a short and energetic black Labrador mix, immediately greets you with an excitable wag of the tail and a determined snout into your hand as if she’s saying “pet me!” Bode hangs back a little, ears perked. Once you sit down, he’s on your lap in seconds.

Aspen and Bode are two of Washington County Mental Health’s newest “employees.” Both work with Dianne Bouchard—a licensed clinical mental health counselor at WCMH—as pet therapists. Bouchard’s office is at WCMH’s Access Program, which coordinates directly with Central Vermont Medical Center’s Emergency Services.

The animals’ unique names come directly from Bouchard, a downhill ski enthusiast—Aspen for the Rocky Mountain resort and Bode for Olympic ski racer Bode Miller.

Patients, mostly children and young adults, who experience anxiety, stress, depression, PTSD, and other mental health illnesses, have worked closely with Aspen and Bode as part of Bouchard’s animal-assisted psychotherapy practice. She says patients who might have trouble talking with a counselor sometimes find it easier to engage when there’s a friendly animal in the room.

“I’ve seen some really good progress [with patients],” she says. “I’ve seen kids much more relaxed, less stressed with Aspen or Bode. And they talk about things and feelings that they might not talk about otherwise. They open up more.”

Bouchard also says many of her younger patients share experiences that Aspen and Bode have both faced—bullying, stress, abuse, and abandonment.

“I don’t take Aspen to the dog park anymore because the bigger dogs all go after her since she’s much smaller than them,” she says. “So right there, kids might share similar feelings of bullying and anxiety and can talk about it.”

Bouchard’s pets are also rescue animals. Aspen came from a litter in Louisiana. Bode was born locally but didn’t have veterinary access as a kitten. He was found with a ruptured cornea which makes it difficult to see out of his left eye. Both are just over a year old.

Although Aspen and Bode are new to WCMH, the organization has been featuring animal-assisted psychotherapy for a little more than three years. Bouchard earned a certification in pet therapy counseling at Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado. While there, she learned methods and best practices for incorporating trained animals into counseling sessions.

“I didn’t just work with dogs and cats, I worked with horses, goats, rabbits, rats, guinea pigs,” Bouchard says.

Aspen and Bode will soon undergo their own certifications. To earn her therapy dog certification, Aspen will have to perform a series of tests to show she’s not aggressive and listens well to directions. Bouchard is waiting until Aspen is a little older and out of her “puppy stage.”

There are no existing therapy cat certifications, so Bouchard and an animal certification center in New Hampshire will develop them with Bode serving as the model cat.

Prior to the arrival of Aspen and Bode, Bouchard “borrowed” the pets of friends and coworkers for sessions. She also brought patients down to Random Rescue in Barre as part of their treatment and to volunteer.

Two of Bouchard’s patients say that working with animals has helped them overcome many personal obstacles. Sammi, a patient who has social anxiety, says pet therapy has made her less anxious.

“I’m a lot less nervous with animals around,” Sammi says. “They help me branch out more, and that makes me better at talking with people because I’m more calm.”

For Morgan, helping with rescue animals and talking with Bouchard also helped her overcome anxiety and stress. “It forced me to get out and interact, and social interaction, even with animals, is a good thing,” Morgan says.

If anyone is interested in animal-assisted counseling, contact Washington County Mental Health at (802) 223-6328.

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