You see, sometimes in life, the best thing for all that ails you has fur and four legs. ~Mark J. Asher, All That Ails You: The Adventures of a Canine Caregiver
Once, when I was practicing clinical psychology, I had a young client named Katie. She was a typical six-year-old—cute, curious, and full of energy. Katie loved Barbies, Disney movies, and playing outside.
Her mother was seeking counseling for her because she had recently been through a traumatic experience during which she was almost abducted. Katie was grabbed by a stranger, but just as he was attempting to shove her into his car, he was scared off by her brothers.
Understandably, after the incident, Katie was terrified of going outside.
For several weeks, she and I engaged in exercises consistent with standard play therapy, as she gradually opened up to me about her life and fears.
She told me about her older brothers, who were typical boys with all their various antics and associated cooties. She told me about her room and favorite books. She told me about ice cream, which she loved, and broccoli, which she did not. And she told me about Rex, the beloved family dog and a gentle giant who didn’t seem to realize he was a 120-pound Rottweiler, not a three-pound Chihuahua.
One of the activities we frequently engaged in was a simple drawing game. Katie would draw a picture of herself playing. I had to guess where she was and what she was playing with. Then, I would draw, and she would guess.
This activity was a catalyst for conversations about feelings. Gradually, I moved the play scenes to the outdoors. One day, I asked her to draw herself playing outdoors. Hesitantly, she drew herself at a swing set outside her apartment building. When I asked Katie if she liked to play on that swing set, she said she used to, but didn’t anymore. When I asked her why, she shuddered and said she was afraid.
That was enough for that day’s session. We were taking things nice and slow, so we hung the pictures on the wall for another time.
The next week, we looked at our pictures again. This time, I asked her to draw into the picture why she was afraid to play on the swing set. Katie added an ominous, black car with dark windows. Once again, we hung the picture up on the wall to be revisited later.
The following session, I asked her to draw another picture of herself playing on the swing set. When she completed this, I asked her to draw into this picture something that would make her not afraid anymore.
I expected she would draw in her big brothers, or perhaps her parents or other adults.
From there, we could work toward developing a schedule of outdoor play, where these protectors would spend decreasing amounts of time with her until she felt comfortable without them.
Katie thought about it for a long time and then gave me a knowing look. She turned around, shielding the drawing from my sight as she worked on it. When she was finished, she spun around, clutching the drawing to her chest.
I asked her if what she drew into the picture would make it okay to play on the swing set again. With a huge smile on her face, she nodded vigorously.
I asked her if she wanted to show me what she drew. Proudly, she turned the picture over and held it up for my review. There, next to Katie by the swing set, was Rex, with a huge, toothy grin on his face, too.
Katie came back for one more session the next week to say goodbye and draw me one more picture of her with Rex. I hung it in my office to remember her by. She had reached her therapy goal and now had other things to do with her time—like play outdoors with Rex.
As often happens, the therapy took its own course. I had a well thought-out plan of action for gradually giving Katie back her sense of safety. But in the end, Katie and Rex had a plan of their own.
It was her brothers who intervened in the initial incident and kept their sister from harm.
But it was Rex who made Katie feel safe again.