Monday, March 27, 2017

Dog Assisted Coaching

The beginning of Dolce Vita Comfort Dogs

During her five years of Psychology studies, and after getting her Masters in Psychology, Natascha Van der Eecken still felt like something was missing. Natascha was 10 when she got her first dog, Loona, and the unconditional love, profound moments of joy, and feelings of comfort that she experienced with Loona forever changed her. 
"I always felt there was something missing during the courses, and for me that was the impact, the positive influence of animals and more specifically of dogs, on human health.
I had my first dog when I was 10 years old, Loona, and I learned a lot from her. She gave me comfort, love, she was there in bad and good moments, so that's where I realized what an impact an animal can have on your life."
Solution focused approach

After finishing her studies, Natascha searched for alternative Psychological methods as opposed to simply practicing the more classical Psychology. She focuses on the present and future more than analyzing the past, and in most cases, a few coaching sessions are often enough.
"There are really a large range of psychotherapies, but I like it when it's solution focused. I prefer to focus on the present and the future, so I'm not only going to look at what is the problem, but what are you good in, what are your resources, and how can we make it better now and for the future more than really analyzing everything that happened in the past years." 
The dog's role

Natascha's dog assisted coaching practice is for adults and children, and in either case the dogs can have a passive or active role. A passive role means that a dog is psychically present in the room during the sessions, but does not interact much with the client. Some people feel more comfortable when there is a dog present that they can pet, and it's also proven scientifically that a dog's presence has an influence on physiological matters such as a person's heart rate. In most of Natascha's sessions, the client's prefer that the dog has an active role, and are then asked to perform a task with the dog. The task can be anything from taking a walk with the dog outside on a trail, on or off leash, or in the case of children, Natascha may ask them to teach her dog a trick.

For example, a client with a tendency to be a perfectionist is asked to take the dog for a trail walk. Because the client is doing their best to try and perform the task as perfectly as possible, Natascha observes that the task is becoming increasingly difficult and stressful for the client and dog. After the task is over, Natascha would then begin the conversation by asking the client how they think the task went, giving her observations that trying to perfect the task seemed to cause stress and difficulty, and asking if this trait and feelings are something they recognize in their daily life.
"I look at what the person does and ask them how they think it went and then give my observations. I always try to make a link between what happens in the session and the daily life of the person".
Getting children to express their feelings can be challenging, therefore one approach Natascha uses is asking them to teach her dog a trick. This tends to have a positive impact on their self esteem when they see that they were successful. Natascha also has emotion balls (happy, sad, mad, etc.). The child is asked to throw the balls and whichever one the dog returns with is the emotion they discuss first.
"It's a way to start to communicate with the child or adult. I say to the child that I am sad when this or this happens..., my dog, she is sad when this or this happens..., and when do you feel sad? It's a way to start a conversation by playing with children. A lot of children don't can't express what they really feel in words. So my approach is also experience based, I want them to do things and experience how it is with alternatives".
Using a dog's character as an opportunity to gain insight 

Natascha has three different dogs with distinctive personalities. They are trained in basic obedience, but they did not receive any special training for their dog assisted coaching role. The dogs are simply themselves and Natascha uses the reaction of her dogs to interpret how the clients are feeling and focuses on this link of communication. In her view, having the perfect dog does not allow her to gain the insight she needs in order to help her clients. For example, if a client is asking the dog to jump, and the dog refuses, then she can use this as an opportunity to gain insight by asking her client how this refusal to perform a task made them feel. But if she were to train her dogs to jump on command, then this approach wouldn't work.
"Dogs react on how we feel and they are very sensitive, they feel our emotions before we do, mostly. I really use the character of my dogs, they are very different. I see what the dog does, I see what the person does, and I ask questions about it and try to make links to the difficulties they experience".
Natascha's three dogs

Types of services
  • Coaching (adults and children)
  • Dog assisted coaching (adults and children)
  • Assertiveness training with a therapy dog
  • Sessions to reduce fear of dogs (adults and children)
  • Child & Dog Workshops
  • Assertiveness training for children
  • Visitor dog
Natascha offers her clients a wide range of services. If a client is not comfortable with dogs they can simply choose normal coaching. She also works with clients who have developed a strong fear of dogs, or children who want to learn how to interact with dogs in a responsible way.
"Most people who are afraid react in a certain way that makes the dog afraid. So I teach people how to read the language of the dog and how to behave themselves so that they don't attract the attention of the dog".
For those who are elderly or may be isolated and living alone, she offers visitor dog sessions where she brings her dog to the client's house or asks them to meet her somewhere so they can talk and spend time with the dog.

Spreading the word

The Dolce Vita Comfort Dogs website has been online since November 2016, so the business is very new. As dog assisted coaching is a new concept in Luxembourg, Natascha is reaching out to medical professionals and introducing her business in hopes of spreading the word.