For three decades, counselor Ann Howie has had a profound impact in the local community. Ann has been successfully integrating animals into her counseling practice since she began in 1987, but it’s not the direction that she had initially planned to take.
“As I was finishing my master’s degree, I felt like there was nothing that could make me go back to school,” she recalled. “I was so done with school! I was living in Fort Worth, Texas, at the time, and I read an article in a local newspaper about something called ‘pet therapy’ at the time. (It’s now called animal-assisted therapy.) My heart responded immediately as I was reading the article, and I said to myself, ‘I would go back to school for that!’”
While Ann was initially surprised at her own thoughts, animals had always been an essential part of her life, so integrating animals into her therapy practice wasn’t an unexpected choice. “I grew up as an only child in farm country with no close neighbors, so our animals had been my closest friends and playmates,” she recalled. “I responded to the article by becoming a volunteer with my dog at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas – an incredible program led by Shari Bernard, a brilliant pioneer in incorporating therapy dogs into rehabilitation therapies.”
Ann soaked up everything that she could from this program. “I began talking with my supervisor at the county psychiatric hospital where I worked,” she recalled. “She was supportive, and I began a vigil for the first patient at my hospital where I could try out this concept with my mental health patients. One morning as the staff were reviewing the status of all the patients in the hospital, I heard one doctor say, ‘I’m willing to try anything to help this patient!’”
This was exactly the opportunity that Ann had been waiting for.
“I queried if she was really willing to try something new, and she was, so I pitched my idea of working with my dog with her: animal-assisted therapy,” Ann said. “The doctor supported the idea, and since my supervisor and I had already written policies, I was able to start almost immediately. I’ll call that patient ‘Debbie.’ She was 24 years old and suffering from extreme postpartum depression, including suicidal desire. For six weeks, she’d been on the side of the hospital that provided the greatest security. She wasn’t talking (even though she was physically able to talk), and she hadn’t left her room for more than a few minutes. I first checked with her parents to make sure she had no allergies or fears about dogs (I learned that she loved dogs), then I went to her and talked with her.”
Ann told Debbie about her Shetland Sheepdog Qui (pronounced, “key”) and let her know that if she wanted to see Qui, she needed to come out of her room and come to her office. The motivation worked.
“Within two days, she was ready to leave the unit and come to my office,” Ann recalled. “She met Qui and knelt down on the floor to be near Qui. She didn’t speak. Not that day, at least. But the next time she worked with Qui, she started whispering to her. I wish I could take credit for the next strategy, but it was all Qui: After a few days of whispering, Qui stopped listening. Debbie had to start talking in a normal voice to get Qui to pay attention to her.”
As Debbie continued to work with Qui, they took walks around the hospital inside, then outside the hospital, increasing Debbie’s confidence literally step by step. “We taught Qui tricks and compared Qui’s learning to how Debbie was learning new things to take care of her baby,” Ann said. “Within six more weeks, Debbie was released from the hospital. She got a job and maintained it, as well as parented her baby with her family’s support. The only difference between Debbie’s first and second six weeks in the hospital was her work with Qui. That was a miraculous beginning to my work with animals in mental health. After that, I never looked back!”
Ann has written three books, including Starting a Visiting-Animal Group, The Handler Factor, and Teaming with Your Therapy Dog, all of which are available through DogWise.
“Starting a Visiting-Animal Group gives guidance to people who wish to start a volunteer group of people visiting with their animals,” Ann explained. “The Handler Factor is about how to evaluate the handler’s suitability for a program or facility. (It’s not just the animal who needs to be a good fit!) My latest book is Teaming with Your Therapy Dog, and it’s about how to connect with and support our dogs, whether they are therapy dogs or personal companions. It starts from a place of deep respect for our dogs and offers principles that can be applied in individual ways to any situation we might encounter with our dogs. I encourage everyone to read it!”
As an adjunct professor at St. Martin’s University, Ann enjoyed helping people who are new to the mental health field find their strengths and explore how to effectively help others.
“Animal-assisted therapy remains a priority with me, and I ended my work at St. Martin’s and moved to the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work because they had an animal-assisted-therapy-specific program,” she explained.
“I have taught with them since their online certificate, Animals and Human Health, began in 2006. It has been deeply gratifying to see students end with an appreciation for the work that the animals do rather than seeing the animals as simply an innovative ‘tool’ to help them achieve goals with clients/patients. It brings tears to my eyes to read comments from students who acknowledge that at first they had no idea that their animals might have an opinion about whether or not to do this work, and by the end they know how to better read their animals’ opinions through their behavior.”
Ann now works with the Institute for Human-Animal Connection, part of the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, as the Program Director for a new certificate: Canine-Assisted Intervention Specialist (CAIS). “CAIS is in development now and will launch in the summer of 2018,” Ann explained. “CAIS is a rigorous program specifically for mental-health practitioners and educators with advanced degrees who wish to work with a dog(s) in their professional practice. Through CAIS, I am achieving my life and career goal of getting canine-specific information to people already trained in how to help people, but who may lack adequate information about their canine partner. More information about CAIS will be available soon on the University’s website.”
Ann shares her life with a variety of animals, both indoors and out. “I am fortunate to live in an area with lots of trees, wild birds, squirrels, rabbits, deer, slugs, spiders, and others – all of whom are welcome outside,” she said with a laugh. “Inside my home, my husband and I currently share our lives with two dogs: Gusto (pronounced “goo-stow”), a Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, and Diva, a Standard Poodle. Neither of them are therapy dogs, yet they are The Best Dogs Ever! We love love love doing sport K9 Nose Work, and exploring the countryside together. Nose Work is particularly fun because the dog gets to be a dog (by using his nose to find specific scents) and I get to practice my observation skills to notice subtle changes in behavior and identify whether he’s ‘in odor’ (on the trail of the scent) or still searching for it. I am completely enamored of being with my dog when he’s using his nose.”
Ann finds that her varied work helps her remain balanced and healthy. “I do a handful of things professionally: mental health counseling, teaching, writing, and dog training,” she said. “It’s gratifying to work with people in counseling, especially in hospice or bereavement work, and particularly in pet loss. It may sound odd that I’m drawn to that work, because I’m certainly not drawn to the excruciating pain of loss. We all seek to be understood and to be listened to, and I am happy to be a person who will listen and be with someone in emotional pain. That side of my work has been balanced with dog training, focusing on therapy dog training. Seeing people open up and develop an emotionally intimate relationship with their dogs helps me feel like I am making a difference in the world. And when those people share their relationship with their dogs with people in hospitals or care facilities, I am glad to have been part of their paying it forward.”
Ann’s work in the field of animal-assisted therapy has emphasized the welfare and well being of the therapy animal, rather than solely helping the human clients. “That emphasis has felt almost like a sacred calling: to speak up for the animals,” she said. “When my dog, Gusto, required back surgery and rehabilitation exercises during his recovery, I discovered a new way of assuring animal well-being: canine fitness training. In the past two years, doing ‘regular’ counseling (without a therapy dog) became less fulfilling to me, so I went back to school and got a new credential: Certified Canine Fitness Trainer. Now I help athletic dogs become strong to (hopefully) avoid injury, help overweight dogs lose weight, and help elder dogs regain strength to live happily as long as possible.”
One of Ann’s favorite stories from her canine fitness business pertains to a dog named Sparky and his partner, Thea.
“When Sparky first came to me, Thea wanted to work on his behavior when walking,” Ann recalled. “When we started working, Sparky would shut down and freeze in place. My usual positive training efforts didn’t work with a dog who wouldn’t move! So we changed our focus to play, even though Thea insisted that Sparky didn’t know how to play. She was right. He didn’t know how to play, but once we changed our expectations from training to play, he was willing to learn. In his first play session, after initial hesitation Sparky successfully performed five new behaviors that he’d never tried before! By his third session, both Sparky and Thea burst into my building (early, I might add), ready to go! They were working together as a team, both were listening to and communicating with each other, Sparky initiated behaviors that he’d been hesitant about previously, and Sparky never froze once! Seeing a relationship bloom like that is food for my soul.”
Ann added: “My work is not a place of judgment; it is a place of acceptance and nurturance. I want to encourage people to do more with their dogs in a way that works well for both the dog and the person.”