Pet passion connects ACAP Counselling graduate to meaningful work

Trained animals help counsellors build client rapport, and a Melbourne ACAP graduate who sampled the technique at placement has begun a career in this specialised field.

At Elani Schmidt’s unique student placement, her two pets were by her side at client sessions during much of her 240-hour practical unit. To prepare, her nine-year-old miniature poodle Indi completed training, and her three-year-old mini lop rabbit Winston passed assessment for the all-clear to play his special part in therapy at Lead the Way Institute in Victoria.

Elani, who previously worked as a Puppy School Trainer, targeted Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) – also known as Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) – as a professional interest after noticing a job advertisement in the field prior to starting her Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy course at the Australian College of Applied Psychology (ACAP).

“At the end of my Honours degree, I saw an advertised position for an Animal-Assisted Therapist and thought ‘I want to do that!’”, she said.

Horses also featured in Elani’s field activities. While networking with AAT therapists during placement, she learned that goats are now becoming popular in AAT as the alternative therapy gains popularity for its soothing qualities.

“After getting into ACAP I started looking for a placement host and came across Lead the Way. They were not advertising a placement position at the time but I gave it a shot and it was the best decision I ever made,” said Elani.

Putting pets to the test 

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Training regimes for furry AAT participants vary depending on the species. Counselling supervisors assess small animals, such as rabbits, on their friendliness, grooming and general behaviour to ensure their suitability for client contact. Therapy dogs attend a six-day intensive course with their owners. Their training combines individual obedience and assessment with coaching of their masters on effective use of the animal in a clinical setting.

“When practitioners take part in AAT it’s important they use their own pets so a strong bond can occur between the therapy animal and their handler. Because Indi and Winston were my pets I knew their behaviour and how to manage them,” said Elani.

After participating in three distinct professional applications of AAT at Lead the Way, made up of one-on-one clinical therapy, outdoor equine sessions and youth work outreach, Elani is determined to feature this specialty counselling technique in her career. She hopes to run animal intervention groups in the future, as her expertise grows.

“AAT is something I have become very passionate about as I have seen the way the presence of animals can enhance counselling work. I think this is due to the power of experiential learning used throughout the interventions, the ability for clients to create rapport with their counsellor due to the animal, and the power of unconditional love taught through the therapy,” she said.

Dogs making a difference

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Elani began her placement working with both of her pets in individual counselling sessions at Lead the Way’s low-cost clinic. Following this introduction to AAT, she and her dog Indi were scheduled for weekly visits to a city youth centre to work with young homeless clients.

“It was incredible to watch the impact Indi and my supervisor’s dogs had on these kids. Often they would tell us about past pets they’d had, and how spending time with our dogs made them feel at home, even just for a while,” said Elani.

“Taking animals on site visits allowed the young people to experience love and compassion but also gave them an activity to do, such as play ball or do tricks with the dogs.”

Fieldwork took on a new meaning when Elani ventured out to assist with sessions held in a horse pasture at a property owned by a Lead the Way colleague. Here she learned how using large-animal interventions in an unconfined outdoor environment supports clients who need to release long-held emotional stress.

“Co-facilitating the Equine Therapy Group was one of the greatest parts of my placement. This involved using various methods of experiential learning to help clients develop and work through past traumas,” said Elani.

“Placement at Lead the Way exceeded my expectations in the most amazing way. I never thought I would be given half the opportunities I had, nor that I would learn as much as I did.”

Animals as radars for human behaviour 

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During clinical AAT sessions, therapy using small animals usually takes place in confined quarters, which presents its own complexities.  Elani found she needed to become an efficient multi-tasker to juggle animal management while paying attention to clients and applying the best counselling techniques to each situation.

“One of my major challenges was finding a way to monitor the animals in the room, while actively listening to my clients. However, I found that being open about needing to watch the animals and putting them in their beds or cages if they were having a ‘bad day’ helped me manage my attention,” she said.

“The experience was as much about interpreting clients’ emotions as it was about understanding how the animals were feeling, and usually these two overlapped. That is, if my animals were acting agitated or naughty, my clients were usually feeling anxious or agitated themselves. I also learned to explain this as a form of feedback to help my clients.”

Her pets took direct and indirect roles during Elani’s work at Lead the Way. A typical example was providing calming cuddles to alleviate anxiety. Clever poodle Indi’s other valuable asset during therapy was taking commands from Elani. These exercises were designed to demonstrate the skill of assertiveness to clients in a memorable way, along with the benefits of positive-versus-negative reinforcement.

Her rabbit’s helpful reactions during clinical counselling sessions surprised Elani. She says his natural responses to human behaviour were useful because she could highlight his instincts and discuss them to set troubled clients back on course.

“Winston gained an amazing ability to respond to emotions,” she said.

“If clients were angry or frantic, he would run around the room and did not want to be cuddled. I used this behaviour as a form of feedback and often would suggest we do a mindfulness exercise. I would put Winston on the couch with the client and we would do the exercise. When we finished I would ask the client how they were feeling and they usually responded by saying they felt more relaxed. I would then ask them to look over at the rabbit, he was usually half-asleep on his side, and he remained relaxed for the rest of the session. He would let clients pat him and often he didn’t move off the couch unless instructed to do so. This was a great tool in sessions as it created a forum to talk about client’s emotions in a unique and amazing way.”

Of the overall experience, Elani says many clients commented that spending time with her pets was the highlight of their day. The feedback contributed to her personal satisfaction from putting her practical skills and passion for working with animals into action.

“People often left sessions calmer and in better frames of mind than when they arrived, and I do believe a large amount of this was due to their interaction with the animals,” she said.

A job after placement 

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Elani’s placement connections as an ACAP student resulted in casual work since her graduation, as a group facilitator at the youth centre she and Indi the poodle attended during placement. Elani will return to Lead the Way later this year to help teach its Companion Dog Training Course.

“After completing my placement I was offered to co-facilitate and be a mental health support for a new course my supervisor is creating, to certify companion dogs for people with a mental illness,” she said.

“I’m really excited to possibly teach part of the program, and more so to be there to support people during these demanding courses. As someone who completed the same sessions, I know they definitely are intense.”

Elani is grateful to ACAP for its interesting postgraduate course units and the freedom to pursue her special choice of placement. She also credits an upbringing with awareness of personal wellbeing for developing her passion for allied health as a career.

“I was very lucky to grow up with a mum who was a psychologist, so I was exposed to the mental health field from a young age. ACAP is a very supportive college that wants you to succeed and gives you great opportunities to do so,” she said.

Find out more

ACAP offers Counselling courses from Diploma to Postgraduate level in on-campus, online, full-time and part-time study modes. Complete the enquiry form on this page to receive a course information pack. Read about the services offered by Lead the Way Institute here.

Elani was interviewed in March 2018. 

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