The feel of the classroom for the University of Lethbridge’s combined art therapy and animal-assisted therapy summer course lacks the stressful vibe common to some classes. A pioneer of art and animal-assisted psychotherapy, Straja Linder King, sees combining the two as a natural blend. Linder King, Board Certified, Registered Clinical Art Therapist from Calgary, started in art therapy. Art therapy is a form of non-verbal treatment. The animals fit in because they are also a form of non-verbal therapy. This combined therapy has shown that lower anxiety, lower blood pressure, and lower heart rate are all benefits.
Linder King has two Shiloh Shepherd therapy dogs, named Twillow Rose and Tala Rain, in her classroom. These dogs are direct descendants of Linder King’s former working dogs, Tumbra and Tangus.
She says having the dogs to help with therapy has endless applications. “These two remarkable dogs do a lot of work,” she stated. They have worked with victim support in the court system, hospice care patients, and as comfort for grieving individuals.
The dogs lift spirits when anxiety, troubles, and depression, Linder King commented. “They carry innate wisdom that we don’t and that’s why it’s beautiful. Human and animal bonds are one of the oldest there are.”
The three-week course offers students hands-on experience to interact with the animals and experience the non-verbal interaction, which compares to art therapy. The interactions usually take place with one student participating in an activity with animal assistance while the other students observes.
Linder King says these activities are where students learn the most. They, then, process their observations of the human-animal interaction through art or writing in journals.
Even people who haven’t had good experiences with dogs seem to be won over by Twillow and Tala.
Afsheeadeh Abbasnezhad is one of those people. She moved to Canada as an immigrant skilled worker 10 years ago. Interacting in this course with the dogs has changed her feelings drastically about the animals.
“I was born in Iran and raised there. It’s not common to have pets… [When] I moved here that was the first time I was close to dogs and everything. At the beginning I was scared of big dogs and I tried not to get very close to them.”
Twillow and Tala changed all that. She goes on to say how the friendliness of the dogs made her see they don’t bother people. “We can have a mutual interaction, that was a big challenge and change for me.”
Abbasnezhad is comfortable enough with the dogs now that Twillow has stayed overnight with her at home. She commented how big that is for her because she was afraid of even touching a dog before.
Such an example proves what Linder King has said about dogs being a powerful calming source. In fact, Linder King says the interaction between the dogs and a human is symbiotic. The dogs actually calm down faster.
Linder King feels she is doing the work and research she is meant to with the dogs.