Therapy dog tileHe asks no questions, he passes no judgement and offers no advice, but a Newcastle therapist is making his mark in the Hunter by helping people with post-traumatic stress and depression talk about the tough stuff.

He is also considerably hairier than most in his field.

His name is Nelson – an astute, two-year-old black Labrador Retriever, who enjoys long walks on the beach, gentle tummy rubs, and comforting people as they recall traumatic events.

Nelson is a fully trained, professional therapy dog, certified to work alongside clinical psychologist Dr Paul Spencer at Newcastle Psychology and Health in Lambton.

“There is a lot of research around now about the really positive aspects of having an animal involved in therapy,” Dr Spencer said.

“A dog lowers cortisol levels – the stress hormone. Just watching a dog can do it. But of course touching a dog, patting a dog, is even better. It lowers cortisol levels and increases oxytocin – the love hormone.

“It has a rapport-building capacity initially. It helps to break the ice really quickly – particularly for patients coming here, perhaps for the first time, who might be broaching a mental health condition like trauma, or severe depression.”

Dr Spencer said Nelson was also very good with children and adolescents, particularly those with behavioural issues or autism spectrum disorder. They would often get down on the floor with Nelson, and start talking.

“You can set it up as a third person conversation, and talk to them that way,” he said. “A lot of the time, Nelson can detect depression, and he will go over and really just plonk himself at their feet so the patient knows he is there. They might be re-living something that is quite stressful, so while they are narrating, he picks up on their tone, and their emotional response.

“Some of the ex-police officers and ex-army guys that come in are suffering from horrific traumatic memories. We can be going through trauma-focused exposure therapy and they might be re-living their past trauma, and I’m helping them be able to identify their emotional states and stay present.

“When they’re patting Nelson, and talking, and getting emotional, I don’t need to say ‘Just open your eyes now and tell me four things you can see, or four colours.’ They are present, they are patting all the time.

“It is a real tactile experience that patients get.”

Nelson had been a “passive presence” at the private practice for two days a week during the past six months.

His brother Barney, a three-month-old chocolate labrador, also bred by a Dogs NSW registered breeder, will eventually travel to Melbourne to train as a therapy dog too so that they can job-share.

Words: Anita Beaumont -Newcastle Herald

Photo credit: Passive presence: Black Labrador Retriever, Nelson, with clinical Psychologist Dr Paul Spencer, offers animal assistance therapy for children and adults with PTSD and depression.

Photo: Simone De Peak. Source: