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Therapy dog helps New Mexico State University students cope with problems

It has happened more times than she can count, said Karen Schaefer, a psychologist with New Mexico State University's student counseling center -- emotional walls it has taken years to erect are breached in seconds by the gentle prompting of a dog.



Karen Schaefer, a psychologist with New Mexico State University's counseling center, kneels beside her therapy dog Elsa. Schaefer says Elsa has helped clients talk about a range of experiences and helps give the counseling center a more homelike atmosph..

5-year-old black Newfoundland, has been Schaefer's part-time therapy partner for a year now, coming with her to her office in the university's Garcia Annex for half days two to three times a week. Schaefer said she tries to bring Elsa to see clients she knows will benefit the most from her presence.


"For example, many male clients have been taught that real men 'tough out' their problems in silence. They'll come to me with a problem, but our therapy sessions will consist of intellectual discussions about their concerns, bereft of emotion. Often they will be much more emotionally expressive with Elsa than they will be with me, and that can serve as an opening to discuss what's really bothering them," she said.

Schaefer said she began to think about using a therapy dog two years ago, when she noticed that some clients who were victims of past abuse mentioned either that they had abused a pet recently or that they had been traumatized as children by witnessing the abuse of a pet by a family member.

"It could be that they were expressing behavior that had been modeled for them earlier. We're learning more about the link between animal abuse and violence against humans," she said. "Also, children who witness the abuse of an animal may be traumatized, because they absorb the lesson that if the adult can do that to an animal, he or she can do it to them."

In the fall of 2000, Schaefer contacted Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PSYETA), a nationwide group that, among other activities, offers a protocol for treating animal abusers. In November 2001, she and Elsa were certified by the Delta Society, which evaluates therapy dog-handler teams.

While Elsa has served as a "trigger" for getting some clients to talk about memories of abuse or loss, and as a "resource model" for teaching how to touch, communicate, respect and understand an animal, or a vulnerable human, she also has served more mundane purposes, Schaefer said.

"Clients have commented that she helps make the counseling center seem more homelike, more warm and welcoming. She greets people in the waiting room and bolsters our staff"s morale by going around to visit them. In therapy, she can serve as a social lubricant by giving a client or me something comfortable to talk about, or as a momentary distraction when things get too intense. She's incredibly empathetic. She can tell when someone is distraught and in a group session she will go over and sit with the person who is most upset," Schaefer said.


Even university officialdom recognized the useful role Elsa plays at the counseling center, when in December 2001 Housing and Dining Services Director Bob Smiggen arranged to have Elsa get her own ID card designating her as a staff person.

"When we arrived to have her picture taken for the card, the room was filled with people who'd come to watch. She's probably the first animal with a staff ID in NMSU history," Schaefer said.

Sadly, in the last few months, staffers, clients and students in the counseling class Schaefer teaches have had a chance to return Elsa's sympathy, as she has suffered from a disease that causes her joint and muscle pain and ultimately may shorten her life.

"Her health problem is very visible and it's amazing the sympathy people have shown," Schaefer said. "A girl in my class had tears running down her face, and clients have said that it's unfair, because Elsa has been such an integral part of their own healing.

"Still, I think there's a positive side to it, too. People will see her get up with such difficulty and come over to them, and they are touched by her compassion for them. I think it shows that you can have a happy life, and a good life, in spite of pain."

First photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/schaefer_karen_01.jpg.
CUTLINE: Karen Schaefer, a psychologist with New Mexico State University's counseling center, kneels beside her therapy dog Elsa. Schaefer says Elsa has helped clients talk about a range of experiences and helps give the counseling center a more homelike atmosphere. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Second photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/schaefer_karen_02.jpg.
CUTLINE: Elsa, a therapy dog in New Mexico State University's counseling center, got her own staff ID card in December 2001. The identification recognizes Elsa's significant contribution to the counseling center, said her handler, psychologist Karen Schaefer. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Jack King
May 1, 2002