8 AM: drop-off time at Kartini Clinic. It’s early, and patients and parents alike have a day of hard work ahead of them. But then... enter Ryla.
Family therapist Lisa Peacock says that one of her favorite moments of the day is seeing the mood in the waiting room transform when Ryla or Baxter, her two therapy dogs, run in to say good morning. That’s one of the simplest but most effective aspects of animal therapy: most people like animals, and having one around makes them happier.
It can also make the clinic feel a little bit more like home. Lots of patients have pets, so having an animal makes them feel more at ease. And this works both ways: as patients work with Ryla, Baxter, and other animals, Lisa helps them develop strategies for using their own pets for comfort and support, preparing them to practice self-care once they are discharged from the clinic. It’s just one answer to a broader question about the many forms recovery can take. What form does your comfort take? Where can you find it in your daily life? Animals are a good answer for many patients-- to the point where we’ve had many patients leave the clinic expressing new interest in becoming a vet, or otherwise working with animals.
Especially for the youngest age groups, the animals are a useful centerpiece for developing important social skills, including helping manage impulse control problems, or learning to take turns and share. Older patients, on the other hand, who can feel frustrated by the requirements of treatment, appreciate the animals as a way to demonstrate responsibility. It’s common for teenage patients to worry that they are a burden on their families, they often feel that being in treatment puts them in a constant position of being a recipient of care. A therapy animal gives them another living being to whom they can give love and support - and who accepts their love without judgment. The work is not just about treating patients’ eating disorders, but equipping them with skills and tools to smoothly return to today-to-day life.
Of course, day-to-day life continues even when in treatment, and that’s something that animals help us remember, too. After a difficult appointment or therapy session, seeing Ryla rolling around on the floor can provide much-needed laughter, and a reminder that even in the hardest moments, life goes on… and that includes the good parts.
Finally, animals provide a source of distraction-- in a good way. Treatment can be a difficult time for the entire family. But animals can be a source of positive memories and wonderful moments during this rocky journey, something to look back on and feel good about. It can also provide fodder for conversation, something exciting to share at the end of the day-- mom, dad, I met a blue-tongued skink!
(The skink is Dan, by the way.)
At Kartini Clinic, we know that there is so much more to eating disorder recovery than just food. Animal therapy is just one of the ways we strive to offer a holistic treatment experience for all of our patients.