What is Canine Therapy? Deschutes Wilderness Therapy’s Unique Approach

By Rachel Grimm, Program Director

Rachel Grimm, Deschutes Wilderness Therapy’s program director, helps demystify canine therapy and how our program incorporates canines into our process. Grimm, program director since 2018, established the canine program in 2015, and today canine therapy is one of the key program pillars at DWT.

Dogs can play different roles in people’s lives. Dogs’ four leading roles when working with people are Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals, animal-assisted therapy, or simply being our pets – each is defined differently. We have created a unique role for our canines at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy. The most significant role they play is the animal-assisted therapy role. Animal-assisted therapy is when animals or dogs serve as an intervention to assist in treatment goals. 

Our canines are a therapeutic tool and intervention to support our students, first and foremost, in building healthy relationship skills. Canines are also often used for emotional support and co-regulation. When a student first comes to wilderness, it is scary, and there is much to adjust to. Newer students gravitate to the canines seeking emotional and physical comfort. At Deschutes, canines also serve as a service animal, providing a service to an individual, much in the same way as guiding someone who is blind or maybe alerting a person with diabetes that their insulin is low or they are about to have a seizure. They provide a critical service to “their person” and are not to be pet by others, which could distract them from their work. 

At Deschutes, the canine is solely dedicated to one individual for most of the day. The focus on one student provides intentional 1:1 time where the caregiver(student) is responsible for the canine, and the canine’s job is to work with that individual. “Canine Caregiver” is one of the daily responsibilities in the job rotation; the focus is on building healthy relationship skills and can mirror past experiences and relationship patterns. The canine is not always creating joy at the moment, instead can challenge our students by pulling on the leash, chasing chipmunks, and, well, just being a dog. When the canine is not on-leash with “their person,” they are considered more of the family pet where everyone can interact and engage with the canine. Who knew our canines had such a diverse and significant role?

Deschutes’ canines are program owned and not by a specific individual, which helps them connect with all the students that come in and out of the program. They look to their daily caregiver as their leader. Our canines do not require specific training before the job, but they regularly receive basic training from our staff and students in the field. We intentionally select Golden Retrievers for the job due to their gentle demeanor, being easily trained, and being known as great family dogs. They are loyal to people and have no problem meeting strangers too. Their coats and size also help them to live in a wilderness environment.

Establishing healthy relationships is central to the therapeutic process at DWT; Grimm shares the importance of connection and human relationships. The primary purpose of the canine therapy program is to create transferrable attachments. Grimm describes transferrable attachment as “one created through relationships with a canine that transfers to healthy human relationships.” So, we’re teaching students how to have a healthy relationship with our canines through an experiential, hands-on approach that includes skill practice and, ultimately, rebuilding neuropathways for lasting results in future relationships. We use our CASA model to teach how to build and maintain healthy relationships. CASA is an acronym for Commitment, Acceptance, Security, and Attunement. 

When our students fill the role of Canine Caregiver, they are responsible for the relationship with the canine, including their care, seeking to understand what the dog is communicating, providing for physical needs, and following through responsively and consistently. When our students struggle in these areas, our staff steps in to help bridge the connections and create intentional goals to support them. Let’s look at how this plays out – if we see a student struggling to get the canine to cooperate, our staff can dig into the “why.” Is the relationship brand new? Is the student not communicating with an equal balance of correction and praise? Is it the tone of voice and body language? Is it because the student needs to pay more attention to the canine’s needs? When we can help create awareness and identify the problem, we can devise goals to work on a solution and compare to where these same concerns may appear in other relationships. Safe, healthy relationships and attachments allow students to dive deeper into their therapeutic work.

Grimm elaborates, “if students are not feeling safe or hypervigilant in a constant state of fear or anxiety, for example, they aren’t able to get into their trauma work while they’re with us. Before stepping into the canine caregiver role, our canines provide safety by simply being present in the group space. The canines also offer a sense of safety in the wilderness environment by providing physical comfort and cuddles. So, having that canine present can serve as the safety the student needs.”

There is a good deal of data to support the benefits of canine relationships. Grimm points to this study on social connections, Pets: Making a Connection That’s Healthy for Humans.

Link to study, here:https://www.heartmath.org/articles-of-the-heart/social-connections/pets-making-a-connection-thats-healthy-for-humans/

In this study, where a sensory device measures the nervous system, circulatory system, and respiratory system, you can see supportive data that when the boy and his dog are together, their nervous systems are more synched, creating a state of co-regulation, decreased blood pressure, and heart rate. Conversely, when they are separate, spikes in the graph indicate dysregulation and increased blood pressure and heart rate.

Other benefits of co-regulation through canine therapy are:

  • Increased play
  • Decreased anxiety and depression
  • Increased focus through experiential learning
  • Improved communication skills
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Increased self-empowerment
  • Reduced loneliness
  • A greater sense of purpose
  • Setting and respecting boundaries
  • Motivation to stay in therapy

There is so much value our canines bring to the therapeutic process. In closing, Grimm reminds us that “it’s about recognizing those transferrable skills and applying them to human relationships to help the student develop confidence in connection.”

Learn more about the canine therapy program at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy. Contact us with any questions, as our dedicated, caring, and professional team is glad to assist you.