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A pet partnership in counselling with lessons for all

Posted by Virginia on 1 June 2017

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Lucy the five-year-old Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen is a qualified counselling ‘interventionist’ and placement partner to her owner, ACAP Bachelor of Counselling student Jacqui Nolan. While it’s true Lucy has beaten her master to qualifying as a canine practitioner, the dog’s graduation involved study-free units that were dependent largely on charm. Also, there was no essay-writing, and treats were available during assessments.

Jacqui trained her pet with the aim of the pair joining forces at work placement. She was keen to explore the clinical benefits of animal assisted therapy (AAT), such as alleviating client anxiety, aiding their self-esteem and improving social skills. During her 250 hours of field experience, Jacqui wanted to combine the common techniques used in face-to-face counselling with the non-verbal cues that present when animals are involved at therapy sessions.

Inspired by listening

Jacqui’s work and studies prior to spending 10 years raising her family were unrelated to the field of counselling. It was her role in community volunteering, with Lucy as a pup by her side, that led to Jacqui’s new start.

“I had been undertaking pastoral work for many years at our local church and was drawn to being with people, listening to their stories and working with them on finding solutions. It got to the point where my interest led me to formalise this with a counselling Degree,” she said.

“When Lucy was about a year old I noticed in several pastoral cases that she was very attuned to people’s pain and was attentive to them in a way I was not able to be. In my own life I have experienced grief and Lucy has been a huge comfort and releaser of hope to me during this time.”

Jacqui’s study pathway began in 2014 with the Diploma of Counselling at ACAP’s Melbourne campus. From there she articulated to the undergraduate Degree, which requires supervised field placement. Jacqui will complete her studies in December 2017 and receive intern status on the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) national register of qualified practitioners.

“At the beginning, the idea of an undergraduate Degree appealed to me, but I was unsure if I was up to such intense study after a break of many years,” said Jacqui.

“However, I loved the Diploma and was keen to keep learning when it finished, though I was nervous about moving from Diploma to Degree. It has been a lot more work but totally worth it. Support was provided by many of the ACAP staff including the librarians, learning support, placement advisors and lecturers.”

Dog becomes teacher

Jacqui’s placement at Wantirna College east of Melbourne provided the impetus to follow her hunch about Lucy’s talents as a soothing influence. She enrolled the dog for AAT certification at specialist trainers Lead the Way. After passing her units (see the list below), Lucy was ready for duty.

The high school welcomed Jacqui’s canine offsider to school and the pair joined the team, counselling 12 to 18 year old students.

“The wellbeing department of the college have been so accommodating. We worked together to establish good boundaries around having Lucy on and off lead, and the staff have been extremely supportive,” said Jacqui.

“Lucy has a wonderful way of greeting people. Sitting down with students, she helps them feel relaxed and her presence assists in building rapport and trust in the therapeutic relationship.”

In a typical counselling session, Lucy acts as therapeutic ‘interventionist’. As Jacqui predicted, her dog is a natural in the role.

“Students observe the trust and rapport I have with Lucy, which I think conveys that they will be safe to share information with me. Lucy can provide humour at the perfect moment with a grunt or a sigh while a student is storytelling, or perhaps give a lick on the hand during a difficult moment. She also provides a lot of information by how she moves around the room or when she becomes anxious,” said Jacqui.

“Additionally, I can observe how a student acts with Lucy, which will often be a microcosm of how they are with others in their life. This provides a great opportunity to bring a behaviour to the student’s attention without judgement. Lucy is also very much ‘in the moment’ which can be a great example of mindfulness.”

Walk-and-talk therapy

Therapy dogs provide a ready excuse to move a traditional counselling appointment outdoors. Having access to the high school's grounds was a good fit for both Jacqui’s clientele and for Lucy when there was a call for a change of scenery.

“Sometimes we walked around the school oval and play ball, which is not as formal as sitting in a room and it can assist a student in sharing their story and narrative,” she said.

Regardless of session location, placements are where ACAP students put their classroom learning into practice in the professional environment of their choosing. At the school Jacqui could apply the therapy styles she had studied to youth issues in an environment supportive of maintaining wellbeing.

“Wantirna College promotes resilience in the students while also giving them support,” she said. 

“To do this I used mainly a person centred approach with cognitive behavioural therapy, narrative and strength based practices. It has been fabulous to be able to apply these therapies after the last couple of years of studying them. It was really interesting to observe how the theory we learnt through the course is totally adaptable. I have learnt that in working with people you need to use a fusion of practices because of the different scenarios presented with each session.”

Student reactions and rewards

Lead the Way promotes AAT as beneficial to adults, children and groups, with studies across a range of settings reporting improvements in clients’ mental health, cognitive, social and emotional behaviour. Jacqui was able to draw first-hand conclusions about the advantages of working with animals, specific to one-on-one youth counselling.

“My sense is that the work is accelerated by the use of a therapy animal,” said Jacqui.

“All of the students on my caseload have been positive about seeing my dog, but I do check in with them beforehand to make sure they want her present. The therapeutic relationship students have with me is often established more easily. Students observe my relationship with Lucy and can see the trust and fun relationship we have. It also provides a transparency that allows the students to see more of who I am as a person. We also worked with another counsellor with a student who had a dog phobia, which was interesting.”

Professional autonomy and building student relationships have been two standout rewards for Jacqui during her supervised placement. There were many pleasant and some unexpected revelations from the experience, too.

“I think realising how resourceful people really are has been a surprise. Clients may present with problems that leave them feeling without hope. However, I have witnessed how in a short period the counselling process can assist people to find their own solutions. Once time is given to stop and look at an issue, the resourcefulness in people is there,” she said.

“It has also been both surprising and challenging to learn so much from Lucy about what she picks up at a session. Becoming more observant and attentive to her as well as to the client has been a challenge, but this is progressing well.”

Career confidence

With six months to go before graduation, Jacqui has time to consider her career options, but dogs are likely to feature in her future work.

“I am continuing to learn about and practice animal assisted therapy and I plan on having more dogs, probably the same type, as they are lovely to work with. They are known as the ‘happy breed’,” she said.

“I would love to learn particularly about Gestalt Animal Assisted Psychotherapy. I have a holistic approach and believe that while words are useful, the body gives us many clues that can be used therapeutically. Working in AOD, possibly with teenagers, is appealing but I am open to lots of different opportunities.”

Jacqui’s advice to prospective ACAP students is to start at a comfortable level if you are new to study or returning after a long break. Once in class, she suggests following a niche within your discipline as she did, to keep pace with the course load.

“Find an area you are passionate about because having momentum from the interests that mostly attracted me has been a huge motivator and kept me on track when assignments built up,” she said.

“ACAP in my experience have been really supportive and it’s been a great place to study. I liked being able to begin with the Diploma. I hadn’t studied for some years and liked the idea of building my confidence and skills. I have really enjoyed the course. The flexibility of being able to also do subjects online with lots of support has been fantastic.” 

Lucy’s Animal Assisted Therapy units of competency:


Lucy graduated from Lead the Way with a Foundation Animal Assisted Therapy Certificate in October 2016. In May 2017 she added Advanced Animal Assisted Therapy to her qualifications. She was assessed on:

  • Formal Obedience
  • Manners and Canine Good Behaviour Shaping
  • Response to Environment and Equipment
  • Interaction with People
  • Interaction with Dogs
  • Interaction with Animals
  • Handling by ‘other’
  • Separation Confidence
  • Control Under Competing Demands 

Find out more

ACAP offers a pathway studies in Counselling from vocational to postgraduate level, in blended delivery. The Bachelor of Counselling, Graduate Diploma of Counselling and Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy are accredited by PACFA. Explore courses and career opportunities here.

Related story: Pet passion connects ACAP Counselling graduate to meaningful work

Jacqui Nolan was interviewed in June 2017