16 September 2014

Counselling Sally - a mutually therapeutic relationship with a rescue dog

by Amanda Williamson

Is it possible to counsel a dog? People do use animal assisted therapy and I've heard really good things about it. Animals are intuitive and don't talk nonsense. 

Dogs strike me as being particularly mindful - they live in the here and now. They don't dread what's around the corner, unless horribly abused and even then they show steadfast loyalty towards their abuser. 
Flossie and Vicky

I grew up with dogs - two gorgeous rough collies; Vicky and her daughter Flossie. Even so I was petrified of strange dogs. I think somebody told me at a very young age that all dogs have rabies and I believed them. This was pre-zombie-obsession days. Fear of rabies, hydrophobophobia was all the rage for kids in the 70's. Vicky and Flossie had lovely lives and their distinct personalities will always be cherished.

Can you counsel doggies?

Would a dog ever need counselling? What about a dog with anxieties and fears? How would you even counsel a dog, when counselling is a talking therapy and dogs can't talk (not much…although I did have a neighbour who taught his rough collie how to say "Where's your mama")?

Stella the very cool dog
What got me thinking about this was when I was walking my dog this morning. Sally is the first dog I have owned as an adult. I fostered a good friend's dog for almost 2 years whilst he went abroad. My friend forked out for all the expenses and the lovely Stella was mature, well behaved, well loved and frankly one of the coolest dogs around. So this was a lovely favour to give my friend. How many dogs have their own leaving do when they go abroad? Saying goodbye to her was painful and when she passed away the pain was felt all over again. 

Rescuing a difficult dog

Stella left in 2011 and by 2013 the gap in life was apparent. The family made the decision over a period of months to take on another dog. I wanted to take on an older, rescue dog for many reasons. I wanted to give a difficult dog a good home and show him/her that life can be okay after all. And so after enquiring about a dog called Frazer, the rescue centre managed to persuade me that Sally would be much more suitable for our set up. Sally was apparently confident bordering on aggressive, but the confidence meant that she could be left on her own for half a day with no anxiety. We took her on in December 2013.

Sally came with a whole list of instructions. We had to agree to complete muzzle training, enroll her in dog training classes, organise for her to be spayed, ensure that she never, ever was allowed off lead, to ensure that she could never escape (road sense = zero), buy special raised bowls because dalmatians get a twisted gut if they stoop to eat and drink. She was sketchy, boisterous and really quite unruly.

First day at home, skinny and pensive
To give a brief history - she had been one of 14 dogs living on a large piece of land with little human attention and access only to an outhouse. She was 7 years old, underweight even after a few months at the kennels, very wary of other dogs, knew no commands whatsoever and was not used to leashed walks. She pulled horrendously (I ended up seeing an osteopath with very sore chest and shoulders), lunged for any dog within sight to get in there first and strutted around as if she thought she was the cock of the school.

For the first month or so I had serious regrets about taking Sally on. She arrived with a phantom pregancy and ended up with an infected nipple. Walking her was thoroughly unpleasant, physically and emotionally as it was very stressful. Any neighbourhood dogs that dared to come near her were greeted with aggressive barking. She would freak out and lunge, snapping and growling. Things weren't helped by the owner of a just-as-aggressive dog who allowed her dog to come bounding over and lay into Sally, undoing any good work we were doing in trying to reassure her that other dogs don't have to mean conflict.

Sally was an expert thief and could jump up and swipe things off the kitchen counter, then vomit everywhere afterwards. She could open the bin and tip it all over the floor, covering every square inch of tiles before peeing on it all.

She would growl at my partner and refuse to allow him anywhere near her. Apparently she had never bonded with a human before and she bonded fiercely with me, following me around from room to room, never letting me out of sight. Trying to hide under my bed at bedtime. Except for walk time when my presence was utterly disregarded as she tried to hunt things to tear apart, dragging my arm out of my socket (or so it felt) with her unfeasible strength.

I had anxiety dreams about her - I recall one where I was walking her and realised the leash was merely a strand of parcel ribbon and she could snap it and get run over in a trice. 

I cried in desperation. What have we (I) done? Is it cruel to send her back? 


My well known tenacity and determination conquered all and I researched dog behaviour heavily, invested in a few hours with a dog trainer and enrolled her for the dog training classes, fearful that we wouldn't last more than 30 seconds before she tried to kill her classmates.

Over the last 9 months Sally has transformed from a fearful, aggressive girl. Everything that I learned and researched was used to help me understand her lived experience, what the deficits in her life were and how to meet her needs. Sally is now a dream dog. She is obedient, highly affectionate and has even started showing signs of wanting to play with other dogs. 

How did this happen? The neighbourhood dog owners marvel at her transformation. I am thrilled with how far she has come.


This type of endeavour is a huge commitment of time and energy. I signed a contract to say that I would abide by certain criteria and requirements and I stuck to it. When things got tough I questioned my commitment but having the integrity to stick with things and not give up, just because the going gets tough, is an important quality I value. Where there's a will, there's a way.


The most important thing I learned is that without a shadow of a doubt, clear, firm boundaries were the key to Sally's turnaround. She did not know that she wasn't supposed to jump up, to walk "nicely" or to sit on her bed whilst we eat. We had to teach her all of these things and ensure that we all stuck to the same rules, consistently.


I can't understate the importance of trying to connect with the others' experience, whoever the other might be. This is more difficult with another species but learning about dogs and their particular needs really helped me to see Sally's needs rather than my assumptions of what her needs would be.  For example the dog trainer reminded me that speaking to a dog like you would speak to a small child does not work. Dogs bark at each other so she showed me that barking "Off!" or "Leave it" is actually much clearer communication for a dog.  I also learned about pack mentality and could see how Sally was striving to be top dog, however I also noticed that at the times she seemed to relinquish that role she seemed a lot happier and less stressed. I realised that it was a role she seemed to feel obliged to fulfill but in knowing that it wasn't making her happy I taught her that she didn't have to do that anymore. She could trust me to do the worrying. After some months of boundary testing she doesn't feel the need to test them anymore. 

Dogs can also empathise with us. They know when we are feeling lonely, or impatient, or sad, or angry and will respond. 

Unconditional positive regard

I've had my moments of immaturely calling her names when the chips were down but underneath it all, what has helped our relationship is that I value and respect her sentience. Everything I do for her is with her best interests at heart. Her needs are met - she is comfortable, warm, has affection, good food, exercise, mental stimulation and love (the other name for UPR). 

Again, this can work both ways. In a healthy relationship dogs will demonstrate incomparable loyalty towards their companions. Dog owners know what it is like to be on the receiving end of a dog's UPR.


Seeing as I'm checking off all the person-centred core conditions it wouldn't do to miss off congruence. How can one not be congruent with a dog? They know what's what. They are real, always and we can be ourselves in the presence of our beloved companion.

Doggies counselling us?

I started off this article pondering over the parallels between nurturing a rescue dog towards a place of security and contentedness and the counselling relationship. What I realise whilst I have written it is that the therapy works both ways :-)

I didn't counsel Sally, and she certainly didn't give me permission to counsel her, but the core conditions delivered within a context of commitment and clear boundaries seemed to have worked wonders.

Sally now feels safe and content - life is good

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