In this module you will have the opportunity to increase your awareness and skills about mental health self-care and peer support, why they are important, and how therapy dog handlers can practice them. You will learn about some of the ‘costs of caring’ that service providers commonly experience as they learn about the traumatic experiences of their clients. This can be similar to situations therapy dog volunteers find themselves in with program participants. You will also become familiar with the differences between secondary stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma, and the symptoms related to each. By the end of this module, you will have an understanding of holistic perspectives on wellness and introduced to strategies to help you maintain balance in your emotional, spiritual, social, physical, and cognitive health as a therapy dog handler.
Essential Information for Therapy Dog Handlers
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Looking Back, Looking Forward
As a therapy dog handler, the relationships you develop with program participants you meet can be spiritually enriching and emotionally rewarding. However, it is important to recognize that engaging with individuals who have experienced trauma or find themselves facing challenging and sometimes tragic circumstances can negatively influence your own mental health. Early on, these influences may be experienced as secondary stress or compassion fatigue based on the sheer number of people you connect with. Over time, with an accumulation of stressful encounters, you may experience vicarious trauma.
To help avoid experiencing secondary stress, compassion fatigue, or vicarious trauma, it is critical for therapy dog handlers to maintain balance in their emotional, spiritual, physical, social, and cognitive health domains. It is also helpful that organizations have complementary policies and peer support networks in place to help attend to these needs. It is likewise important for you to be aware of ways you can engage in self-care practices, and develop skills to maintain your mental health by planning activities, engaging with relaxation techniques, and developing ways of thinking that promote a positive outlook and avoid negative thinking. Doing so will help you maintain balance in your health, and better enable you to offer comfort and support to individuals in their pursuit of similar positive health outcomes.
To this point, we have touched on ways that therapy dog programs and handlers can respect the needs of the program participants you visit with as well as attend to maintaining your own health. Our final module centres around ways of ensuring the welfare of the third partici-PANT (participant) in your visits. And that is your therapy dog! We turn next to a consideration of animal ethics, discuss ways to ‘read’ canine body language, and help you to organize a therapy dog care RUFFtine (routine).
- Are you able to define the mental health continuum?
- Are you able to identify the importance of mental health self-care for therapy dog handlers?
- Are you able to describe secondary stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma?
- Are you able to explain the role of mental health peer support in self-care?
- Are you able to outline strategies for self-care as a therapy dog handler?
Mental Health and Stress Reduction Tools & Tips
- Grounding and Self-Care Ideas (BCCEWH)
- Quick Tips to Reduce Anxiety (Mental Health Commission of Canada)
- How am I Doing? Check-in Tool (Mental Health Commission of Canada)
- Box Breathing Relaxation Technique (video – Sunnybrook Hospital)
- Self-Care Assessment Worksheet (UBuffalo School of Social Work)
- Guided Relaxation Breathing Exercises (TherapyDogs.ca)
- Beyond the Cliff (TED Talk by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky)
- Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (Laura van Dernoot Lipsky)
- Vicarious Trauma Information Sheet (Headington Institute)
- Effective Organizational and Individual Strategies for Addressing Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma (Compassion Resiliency)
Peer Support Resources
- Peer Support Canada
- Canadian Peer Support Networks for Healthcare Organizations
- Peer Support Resources (Canadian Medical Association)