Ever felt the soothing snuggle of a dog? Experienced their loving licks, the way they sit and listen with an adoring gaze? If so, you’ll understand why I’ve brought Minty into my life. Minty is a specially trained therapy dog who will be joining Mindquest Group from February 2017. As well as playing an active role in our group empowerment workshops for children and adults, Minty will be joining me on my one-to-one sessions with clients.
Man’s connection with dog date back thousands of years. The relationship with our furry friends is neurobiological, social, and emotional. Research shows oxytocin – the “love drug” we experience when we make a social connection – is released in our brains whenever we look into a dog’s eyes. And research now confirms that dogs know whether we’re happy or sad, simply by looking at our faces.
In therapy, studies have shown that having dogs around – simply as a friendly companion, or someone to actively engage with by stroking, patting or hugging – means clients experience less stress and anxiety, and increase rapport with their therapists.
Not only are therapy dogs a source of comfort and connection, they have been shown to positively influence the counselling process. Their presence has been found to break down the walls many people put up during communication. For example, a child having difficulty expressing themselves can talk directly to the dog; similarly, a therapist can communicate to a child through a dog, by using the dog’s “voice” to help guide the child and share positive messaging.
A therapy dog also helps focus the counselling process, by facilitating clients to get in touch with their emotions, more quickly.
Put simply: dogs help us to open up, feel empathy, and be our authentic selves. Unlike humans, dogs don’t judge. They don’t criticise, or talk back, so they are the perfect companion to step into vulnerability with, and give us the courage to tap into parts of ourselves we may not otherwise venture towards.
My area of work, where I help people breathe into vulnerability, can be confronting and downright terrifying. I aim to help others “step into their arenas” and move towards flourishing. It can be an intimidating process, but my clients ultimately find it to be an empowering and life-changing journey. But I believe that journey will now be even better with a comforting and therapeutic dog by our sides!
Minty is an Australian Tamaruke Labradoodle who has been training for her role as my assistant since May 2016. Her training so far has been vast and varied: She’s been on planes, in lifts and cars, and has visited offices, schools, playgrounds, and more. Her training has been about making her “unflappable”, no matter the circumstances or distractions. Her unique comforting skills, and chilled demeanor? That’s natural and all her, and her amazing breed – Tamaruke Labradoodles are known for their loving temperament and adorable features.
A few months ago I was lucky to visit Australia and see Minty’s magic with my own eyes. My children and I went together to meet her with her trainer at a busy park in Sydney. It was a Sunday, and children were everywhere. Minty was like a magnet: adults and children alike swarmed around her wanting to make a connection. My own son, who has a lot of energy, was instantly soothed – it was as if he took a “chill pill”. He wasn’t the only one dazzled by her charm, however. Throughout these interactions, Minty smiled and gave each person whatever it was that they needed in that moment. I knew Minty would soon become an invaluable part of the Mindquest team (and our family).
There was one particular experience that stood out that I’d like to share with you. During this Minty meeting, there was a child, aged about nine, sitting a little distance away completely engrossed in his iPhone. His siblings were all running around playing and his parents were trying to persuade him to put the gadget down and join them. But he wasn’t budging… until he set eyes on Minty. His eyes lit up and he was like a bee to honey. This disengaged, transfixed-by-technology boy was immediately transformed into a curious, dog-loving child, asking all sort of questions as she nestled into his lap. He then started opening up to us! He shared a story of how a dog comes to his school from time to time, and it was the most “awesome” dog ever “but Minty is even better!” After their cuddle, he went running off to play with his siblings – the gadget now packed away and a distant memory. Throughout his play, he continued to look over at Minty and smile. I have started to call these situations “Minty Moments” – of which I am sure there will be many over the years! (In fact, the name “Minty” comes from the Australian candy with the slogan “It’s moments like these you need Minties”. I suspect I am going to have people contacting me saying, “I need a Minty…”)
I have been so convinced of the impact of dogs on children that I conducted a little experiment of my own recently. My eldest son, was nervous about an upcoming Chinese test, and asked for extra tutoring. I was so proud of him for making the request. (Asking for help is a common barrier I see in teenagers in Hong Kong; ultimately, being too afraid to ask for help, and thereby stepping into vulnerability, stops people from reaching their potential). Unfortunately, his regular tutor was unavailable, but fortunately I have a great friend who is a Chinese speaker and I asked her to come over and help instead. But when I told him he was clearly agitated by the last-minute change. Back I went into resource mode, and remembered that she had the most gorgeous Labradoodle, so I secretly asked her to bring her dog along. Well, the minute Ethan laid eyes on her when she walked through the door, he was immediately put at ease. They studied together in the living room for well over an hour, Ethan patting her the whole time.
In fact, not only am I now convinced of dog’s powerful role in helping to forge social connections, I also believe they can be conducive to the whole learning process – hence why dogs are now increasingly being incorporated in schools learning programs around the world.
When Minty finally makes the move to Hong Kong next year, we are also hoping some of our experienced coaching clients will ‘borrow’ Minty from time-to-time, taking her into their communities to help others time. (Judging from the list of clients who have already volunteered to do this, I’m concerned I won’t get enough time with her myself!)
We look forward to sharing more “Minty Moments” with you soon! In the meantime, stay tuned as we will continue to share updates of Minty, her training, and her travels up to Hong Kong.