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Dreamcatcher Goes Online with Animal-Assisted Therapy

COVID-19 has completely changed how businesses and service providers operate. Many psychological and counselling professionals have brought their sessions online, using Telehealth. But what about nature & animal-assisted therapies?

Dreamcatcher Therapy has adapted to meet the needs of their clients online, and we're excited about it.

Their 40-acre ranch can be found 30 minutes east of Edmonton, where clients access unique forms of therapy like nature-assisted therapy and animal-assisted therapy in addition to more traditional therapy interventions. This peaceful setting offers a holistic approach to healing for children, youth and parents. In an effort to maintain support for their clients, they have shifted to secure virtual sessions to provide help and support their clients depend on.

While they still offer in-person therapy (following strict government guidelines), we wanted to learn more about virtual animal-assisted therapy, so I virtually met with Eileen Bona, Registered Psychologist & Executive Director at Dreamcatcher Nature Assisted Therapy.

How has going online changed the way you connect with your clients?

Telehealth sessions are working very well! We can share a split video screen, this gives us the ability to see each other face-to-face. We have made Telehealth sessions available for play therapy and animal-assisted therapy.

We are still able to play games with them, whether it's a board game - and we move the pieces over the video, work on art, or engage in toy play. We work with the supplies they have in their home. The kids seem to enjoy it!

When conducting the animal and nature sessions, our clients call us, often feeling overwhelmed. Once we have them verbalize their feelings and they are a little bit calmer, we take them on a virtual tour of our ranch. It takes them to a safe space.

We ask them ahead of time via email about which animals they would like to work with, in this week’s session, whether that is the horses, mini-horses, donkeys, mini donkeys (Ah!), goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits, cats, or even a guinea pig. We then set up the online cameras in the barn and invite their animal in before their session. The next step we take is broadcasting ourselves with their animal in our private and confidential online platform and conduct the session ‘as if’ the client is with us in the barn with their animals.

We talk about their feelings, the animal’s feelings, help them decompress their anxiety by having them ‘be with’ their animal and offer our ability to touch and interact with their animal as a way for them to be as close as they possibly can to their animal. We work on treatment goals in this medium the same way we would if they were here.

Eileen reflected on an example – "we have obstacle courses set up and maybe we ask the client to help us get the animal around it or we might have more than one animal in there and ask the client to give us their observations about what is happening. We hug the animals in selfie-mode so they can channel the same space and use it as a mindfulness moment."

We hug the animals in selfie-mode so they can channel the same space and use it as a mindfulness moment.

Eileen Bona

Children, youth, adults, parents, and families may still connect with us face-to-face through our online platform with a sense of security, knowing that the video call is secure. The face-to-face conversation allows us to focus better and avoid distractions that might come with a voice-only call.

There is research to support the fact that when you are looking at someone on a screen, you can focus better... both your senses are in unison, which is great, especially when their home environment might be chaotic.

Animal assisted therapy takes you to a safe space

How do you support parents?

Parents are feeling unskilled and overwhelmed right now. Lots of these kids are at home and are feeling the impact of the situation. Parents are wondering how to support their kids.

"We've had parents whose kids are now having to deal with panic and anxiety attacks.”

We have utilized video and phone calls to help individuals verbalize their feelings and become more mindful throughout the situation. We give clients virtual tours of the ranch, introducing them to the animals or nature so that they can remember that state of grounding and peacefulness.

We provide strategies for them to support their children through this difficult time and provide a space for them to decompress, talk about their own fears and feelings of overwhelm and learn about the importance of their own self-care. We guide them to resources to assist their children and validate and normalize their feelings while ensuring they have all the tools they need to navigate this new way of life and the many emotions that come with it.

Who is this for?

Anyone can utilize animal-assisted therapy or nature assisted therapy. We have little ones from the age of three years old to eighty years old! Online doesn't work for all of our clients due to technical reasons or young aged children. However, we still offer in-person therapy as an essential service. We are following all the necessary precautions and screening for health before clients come to the ranch. The animal or nature assisted sessions are outdoors in a healthy environment and social distancing is made easy. If anyone wants to know more about our programs, they are welcome to email us, and we can walk them through how to access us and our support.

How has your community come together?

The love and kindness that has come out of the community have been extraordinary, and the fact that most people want to connect in a positive and supportive way is unprecedented, I'm impressed with our community. We are hoping to offer the option for people to come and walk the land, giving people a way to get into nature. We have 40 acres of property and trails. With one family at a time for social distancing and safety reasons, we can provide an outlet. More details to come on that idea!

What piece of advice do you have for people that are struggling with social isolation and the stress of this situation?

I think that people need to acknowledge their feelings, whether it's a positive or negative feeling. They need to say, "I feel stressed, I feel overwhelmed" or whatever it may be. They may benefit from talking with someone, whether that's with a friend, family member, or therapist. I encourage parents to communicate with their kids about how they are feeling and to verbalize those feelings!

The second little piece of advice I would give is that people should find comfort in the things that normally give them comfort. Allow yourself to do more of those things by setting some time aside to just be. We all need to be self-soothing during this time.

You can find out more about the programs and the ranch itself on their website.

Dreamcatcher animal & nature-assisted therapy

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