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Symbiotic Relationship Between Therapist and Co-Therapist: The Story of Emmie

Donna Clarke

Donna Clarke is a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC) currently working in private practice. She is a nationally certified counselor (NCC), certified as a clinically trained trauma professional: Level II C-PTSD (CCTP-II) and a certified grief counseling specialist (CGCS) through the International Association of Trauma Professionals (IATP). Ms. Clarke is a board certified telemental health provider (BC-TMH) through the Center for Credentialing and Education, Inc. She holds a certificate in Animal Assisted Therapy Training through the University of North Texas Consortium for Animal Assisted Therapy.

The biophilia hypothesis posits an innate connection with earth; a connection to nature (Frumpkin, as cited in Fine, 2019). Perhaps that is why many feel a unique inner relationship to water, trees, or wildlife. For me, it has been felt most strongly as a bond with animals. This connection guided me to co-found and operate a non-profit animal hospice for abused and neglected animals. For more than 20 years we travelled with animals toward a life from fear and pain into one of resilience and peace, as they learned to trust again. Some journeyed their lifetimes. Others did not have enough time. All were precious. This experience led me to explore animal assisted activities and interventions while studying to become a licensed clinical professional counselor, design and teach graduate level coursework, and present at conferences and other institutions, addressing animal assisted therapies, activities, and interventions from the perspective of not only potential therapeutic modalities and benefits, but also the welfare of the co-therapist. I have been fortunate to have Emmie, my CTP, to journey with clients in private practice. It is why I feel passionate about sharing in this work.

The bond between therapist and co-therapist represents a truly special and unique relationship, one requiring objective awareness, honest presence, and understanding, as our co-therapist is reliant upon us to provide more than their daily necessities. Emmie brings her present self to the room. It is imperative that I do the same, both as the therapist and as her human. Understanding her language, in addition to the language of her breed and species, is most important. In that way, her needs are met consistently, conveniently, and compassionately, whether with a bowl of fresh water, food, snacks, walks, bathroom breaks, or most importantly, frequent and significant breaks in her day based on her need, not my schedule. Co-therapists look to us to be able to intuit them on as deep a level as they intuit their own world, our client and even ourselves. For them, it appears fluid, almost second nature. For us, it is learned, effortful, and different. With so much of the language of the living existing in a nonverbal modality, it is very important to be mindful that this is the natural language of the co-therapist. It is a language we aspire to master.

I have heard it said that non-human animals, specifically dogs, are Rog-erian, existing in the present, providing us with unconditional positive regard. Put quite simply, they are happy to see us whether we have been gone one hour or one minute, in dress clothes or sweats, happy or sad. They inform us of this through visual cues: wagging tails, licks, and friendly barks. They also provide less subtle cues. This language they use to let us know not only when they are stressed, but also when they intuit stress in others (Chandler, 2017). These cues provide a wealth of understanding with respect to their world. They are an invaluable component for not only maintaining awareness of the co-therapist, but also other humans in the room. It can prove daunting, as we must be present for the client, the co-therapist, and honest within ourselves to the possibility that it is we who are being felt by the co-therapist, not solely our client.

With respect to non-human animals in session work, through both face-to-face as well as telemental health, I have the privilege of working alongside my therapy pet, Emmie, a 5.5-pound teacup poodle. Each experience with Emmie allows clients to glean what they need in the moment, whether projecting feelings of sadness on Emmies slower movements, or perceptions of anxiety through her briskly wagging tail. Connections can be clear and seemingly immediate for clients who eagerly greet Emmie, asking about her day, or sharing tools from prior sessions. Connections can be more subtle for clients who share thoughts of being disconnected from Emmie while consistently asking about her on days she is not present. My reply: “She is taking a self-care day. What is your self-care today?” One client shared thoughts surrounding self-care, and not having the ability to do the same. What a unique opportunity to explore self-care, mindfulness, and present focus as well as tools and resources! Some clients enjoy training Emmie, and others share thoughts and feelings otherwise too uncomfortable to discuss with just another human. Clients appreciate when Emmie sits with them, fully present, non-judgmental, seeming to innately understand their circumstance, feelings, and pain. Some enjoy watching her sleep, remarking on her calmness in the space. Each interaction becomes a unique extension of the function of the work with Emmie an eager participant in the learning, sharing, and growth of clients. I am ever mindful that, although eager to join in the work, she has the choice to participate, sit out, or not attend—always. This component my clients are well aware of and is often an empowering construct as they themselves often struggle with feelings of lack of control or empowerment.

Therapist and Co-Therapist Synergy 143

Emmie brings such a significant presence to the room; a great deal can be learned from a 5.5-pound dog.


Chandler, C. K. (2017). Recognizing stress in therapy animals. In Animal assisted therapy in counseling (p. 102). New York: Routledge.

Fine, A. H. (2019). Theories explaining the bond. In A. H. Fine (Ed.), Handbook on animal assisted therapy: Foundations and guidelines for animal-assisted interventions (p. 8). Cambridge, MA: Elsevier.

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