For about 6 months, a dog named Gidget has helped her owner Kate – a yoga instructor and former police officer – to lead the light exercise sessions that form part of Quest for Life Foundation’s Moving Beyond Trauma residential program in Bundanoon.
Gidget – a calm and affectionate labradoodle – arrived in Kate’s life soon after she medically retired from her career as a police officer due to post-traumatic stress.
“I got her in 2013, the day I got out of St John of God,” Kate says.
“When I first went off work with PTSD and my relationship broke up, it was a pretty lonely old road. Having a dog was really a huge help.
“I was in the police for just under 20 years and all of a sudden, I could no longer work. I didn’t think it would happen to me, but I was really unwell for a few years before I went off work. One day it all came crashing down.”
After Kate’s retirement from the police force, she experienced high levels of stress while walking outside and was frequently confronted by “triggers” that led to anxiety attacks. However, while walking Gidget, she was better able to enter public places she might otherwise avoid.
“As a cop, your warzone is just walking out onto the road,” Kate says.
“Sometimes avoidance was my middle name. You sort of shut yourself away, which I did for years. Gidget helped me to get out of the house.”
“I don’t think you ever get over it. You make a recovery, but I don’t think it ever completely goes away. You learn to live with the triggers. It’s now 10 years later and I’ve done a lot of work on myself.”
Since that time, Kate has turned her life around and now teaches yoga to former police and military officers affected by post-traumatic stress.
“15 years ago, I would never have thought that I’d be a yoga teacher – I was not that person.”
To begin with, Gidget became a therapy animal before graduating to become Kate’s fully fledged assistance dog, a status recognised under Australian legislation.
Assistance dogs are working animals that are specially trained to help people living with medical conditions or disabilities to move around, do everyday activities, and be more independent. They can help people who have physical disabilities, disabling illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental conditions, and dementia.
“I always knew there was more to my recovery than a psychologist and medication,” Kate says of her companion.
“I always knew there was something more to help me move forward in my life – more than just medication or talking to a psychologist. There’s no one solution for everybody, but you really do have to change your life.”
Kate says Gidget’s presence at the Moving Beyond Trauma exercise sessions always gets participants smiling.
“She certainly breaks the ice. Sometimes we’ll walk down to the park and just have a chat. And 9 times out of 10, Gidget will pick the person who’s the most stressed, she’ll just pick up on that and go to them.”
“A lot of the time we’ll do a mindfulness walk – just something light to show people that you don’t have to go out and do hard exercise, you don’t have to flog yourself.”
Moving Beyond Trauma program development manager, Esther McKay, a former police forensics detective, says Kate and Gidget are a welcome presence for program participants.
“As a PTSD assistance dog, Gidget understands the sense of anxiety that comes with trauma and provides the participants with a sense of calm. She is also a beautiful soul and loves to be stroked,” Esther says.
“Kate is a qualified trauma yoga instructor who takes the Moving Beyond Trauma participants on a structured walk, or if raining she provides a session on restorative yoga.”
“Gidget is always with Kate as her assistance dog, so she is wonderful to have on program as the participants get a chance to interact and spend time with her. Gidget will approach participants very calmly and allow them to stroke her or just talk to her.”
“Connecting with animals can be soothing for those participants who are feeling a little raw, so the inclusion of Gidget on the program during Kate’s session provides an opportunity for participants to come back to nature.”
Recognising how animals can help humans
February 2022 marks the fourth annual Animals Helping Humans Month, a month-long initiative aimed at celebrating and advancing animal assisted services in Australia and across the globe. The initiative includes online workshops by Australian charity Animal Therapies Ltd.
Quest is supporting the initiative by recognising the many ways animals can help keep our spirits, provide comfort and are attentive to their owner’s needs. We spoke to Animal Therapies Ltd founder and director Wendy Coombe about some of the breakthrough research centered around animals helping humans in their daily lives and healing journeys.
When asked how she became involved in her work for Animal Assisted Therapies, Wendy explains that in November 2014, her life “changed forever”.
“I was thrown into this alternative universe, from a high-performing executive into what I’d describe as a ‘breakdown’. To have that taken away from me was incredibly distressing – losing my professional life was kind of like losing my identity. I deleted my LinkedIn account and thought my world had come to an end.”
Like Kate, Wendy was suffering from post-traumatic stress and experiencing anxiety attacks due to triggers when walking outside alone, an experience she sought to minimise through what she now knows as “exposure therapy”, by walking her border collie, Jack.
For people suffering from post-traumatic stress, an assistance animal can help to improve symptoms simply by going out to walk the dog when you have a fear of being outside or in public.
“Obviously with trauma you’re hypervigilant. In a place with triggers, you’re going to scan the environment and it can precipitate panic attacks – particularly with veterans,” Wendy says.
“In 6 months, I walked 2.5 million steps with Jack which helped me manage the anxiety. He was the key for me actually leaving my home because there were certain triggers in public that would cause anxiety attacks.
“I noticed that when I interacted with my horses and with Jack my heart rate was lower. I started doing some desktop research and found that interactions with animals reduce your cortisol and increase oxytocin. When you fall in love for the first time, that’s oxytocin.
“So, I wanted my dog to become an assistance animal. Initially I was like most Australians, I thought there were only Guide Dogs for the blind.
“My doctor had given me a letter to say Jack was a companion animal for a medical condition, but what was happening was I was getting refused public access.”
Although Jack was registered as a QLD accredited assistance animal in November 2017, Wendy was left feeling that it shouldn’t have been so hard to find that solution. The experience prompted her to establish ATL to improve other people’s access to assistance animals and animal assisted services and to improve overall awareness of the sector.
Wendy says the animal assisted services sector can be divided into four categories:
- Animal assisted therapy– therapy animals that work alongside allied health professionals like psychologists, counsellors, speech therapists.
- Animal assisted learning programs– like equine assisted learning programs to develop learning or team building skills, or for example Story Dogs.
- Animal assisted activities– like wellness or visitation animals that go into hospitals.
- Assistance animals– as defined by Australian legislation. An animal that has been trained to help someone with a disability or medical condition that meets standards of hygiene and behaviour.
“Assistance animals are trained to help with a disability, to help people better manage their disability and better access public life. Disability can include psychological conditions, like anxiety or depression,” Wendy says.
“When you have a dog, you need to keep them active and you’re responsible, for example, for taking the dog for a walk, which gets you out of the house into fresh air and exercising.
“The dog might be trained to wake their person up when they’re having a nightmare. For someone with life threatening allergies, a dog can be trained to stop that person from eating a meal that contains any allergen.”
Expanding research into animal assisted services
Wendy says the benefits animals bring to people isn’t limited to assistance dogs, with regular research being carried out into the ways other animals can help people who are experiencing a range of situations.
“There has been an overall increase of research into the clinical applications of animal assisted therapies every year. The research is increasing in parallel with the number of people wanting to access these types of therapies,” Wendy says.
“For example, therapeutic riding of horses or equine assisted therapy can help with physical therapies by aiding improvements in the Gross Motor Function Measure (GMFM) or help with better emotional regulation for people who are on the autism spectrum.
“A horse is a fight-flight animal, they will pick up on the stress in a person before the therapist can. All of a sudden, if the horse stops in its tracks, a practitioner might stop the client and ask about what they’d just been feeling. It can be a form of diagnosis for the practitioner, for example if there’s been a change in breathing pattern.
“Canine assisted therapists have been working with children with ADHD. If the child wants to interact with the dog, then they’ll need to sit quietly. So, it increases their motivation to sit quietly.
“Monash University did a study with guinea pigs where they worked with a group of homeless and abused children, aimed at helping those children to heal from abuse and violence.
“These children had not developed empathy or compassion because they had been neglected, but they actually had an improvement in empathy and compassion by caring for the guinea pigs. Because the guinea pig is a very vulnerable animal, the children learned they’re in charge of a vulnerable being.
“There are also wonderful animal assisted programs in aged care. It’s a wonderful distraction for people and helps them to manage stress.
“I think the biggest thing that the public needs to understand is that the people working in this sector are qualified in what they do.”
Since founding the charity, Wendy has worked alongside Jack as a canine-assisted mental health first aider on RU OK? Day and at various public events around Australia.
The Quest for Life Foundation welcomes assistance dogs at our Centre. Participants can access our residential programs, provided their assistance dog is registered with a service dog organisation and has been trained to help someone with a disability or medical condition.
Related Blogs and Resources:
- Moving Beyond Trauma is a 5-day residential program held at the Quest for Life Centre in Bundanoon, NSW. It is designed for people with post-traumatic stress symptoms to help them to reclaim their lives and create greater control over their emotional equilibrium.
- Vicarious Trauma – PTSD Awareness Day – read about the Moving Beyond Trauma program from program development Manager and former police officer, Esther McKay.