The Healing Touch of Animals
I was able to speak with Judy about her work with service dogs, and about Ricochet and her innate ability to help people suffering from physical and mental health issues.
Leah: What urged you to begin working with service dogs?
Judy: I’ve always liked the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and often wondered if I made a difference in anyone’s life. One day I was at a pet expo and saw a booth for a service dog organization and the opportunity to puppy raise. I thought it would be a great way to make a difference in the world before I left the planet.
Leah: That’s certainly a wonderful way to make a difference. What kind of diseases and illnesses do your service dogs help people with?
Judy: My service dogs help people mostly with mobility impairment. However, now that Ricochet has been working with active duty military and veterans who have PTSD, we’ve become more involved in that as well.
Leah: How did Ricochet come into your life?
Judy: Well, I founded a service dog organization called Puppy Prodigies. In 2008, a breeder who works with service dog organizations allowed me to whelp a litter of her puppies with the added incentive that I would be able to keep one for my program. After an ultrasound was done, I knew there would be ten puppies. I wanted more girls in the litter because I knew I’d be keeping a girl, and wanted more pups to choose from. By the time we were up to the ninth puppy, there were only three girls. So, I took the mother dog’s face in my hands and said “Okay Josie, make the next one a girl, and let her have a piece of white fur on her chest.” Out popped the next puppy, a girl with a white piece of fur on her chest! That was Ricochet.
Leah: That’s truly amazing! Can you tell us a little about Ricochet’s personality?
Judy: Ricochet is a pretty quiet and laid back dog, except when it comes time to chase something. She loves to run at top speed and has quite the chase instinct. If it moves, she’ll chase it! She’s an incredibly intuitive dog who connects with people instantly. She is always giving each person she interacts with exactly what they need, whether they know it or not. She has a tendency to mirror their emotions as well. I can usually tell what a person is feeling by the way Ricochet is acting.
Leah: So at what moment did you, and perhaps Ricochet as well, discover that Ricochet’s mission was something more than being a service dog in the general sense?
Judy: The moment I knew was when she jumped on a surfboard with a boy who is quadriplegic. After I released her from the service dog role because of her chase instinct, I still wanted her to make a difference in the world. My initial plan was for her to fundraise. We knew a boy named Patrick that surfed. Patrick was run over by a car when he was fourteen months old and suffered a C4-5 spinal cord injury. That didn’t stop him! He was an adaptive surfer, so I thought he’d be the perfect beneficiary of her first fundraiser. My idea was to videotape the two of them surfing side by side on their own boards so I could use the footage in a fundraising video. But, when they were approaching the shore on their own separate boards, Ricochet jumped off hers and onto Patrick’s. She wanted to surf with him. None of us had ever done that before, so we put all our trust in Ricochet and they rode the wave like they had been surfing together forever. Since that day, she’s surfed with many different disabilities and she adapts her surfing style based on their disability. I didn’t teach her any of this; she does it from her own instinct. She chose this path and it’s not something I would have ever thought of. I just let her “be” and this is what showed up as her mission.
Leah: She sounds like an incredible dog. Can you tell us a little bit about her relationship with Sgt. Randy Dexter?
Judy: Ricochet and Randy bonded instantly. He would bring her bacon that his wife got up to make the mornings of their sessions together; that was incredibly special. One day while we were in Walmart during an exercise to reintegrate active duty service members with PTSD—through a program called Canine Inspired Community Re-integration through Pawsitive Teams where Ricochet is certified as a therapy dog—she started alerting Randy to his anxiety and pain. She would just stop if she saw people in an aisle that she thought would evoke an anxiety response from Randy. By stopping, it gave him the opportunity to reassess the situation and decide if he wanted to go down a different aisle.
The program was two hours a week for six weeks. Our therapy sessions developed into a great friendship, so we continued to see Randy and his family afterwards. Randy says Ricochet saved his life. We wanted to help others with PTSD, so Randy and Ricochet created the PTSD Battle Buddy Initiative.
Leah: In your experience with Ricochet and with your other service dogs, what have you seen that attests to the genuine benefits of animals as catalysts for healing?
Judy: I think the biggest healing benefit of animals is their intuition. They are much more in tune with people than humans are. They know exactly what you need, when you need it.
Leah: Do you think there’s something specific that dogs offer in comparison to other animals?
Judy: Dogs communicate with us on a very spiritual level. They don’t need human language. They love unconditionally and if you listen, they have a lot to say, even if it’s not with words.
Leah: Indeed they do. Thank you for taking the time to share Ricochet’s story with the readers of Counselor magazine.
For more information about Ricochet’s work with the PTSD Battle Buddy Initiative, visit www.surfdogricochet.com/ptsd-battle-buddy-initiative.html
Learn more about Ricochet and Judy in the upcoming book from HCI
Use coupon code WWRBOOKS at checkout for an additional 20% off!
Dede: I often joke that my connection to horses is genetic. My mother’s side of the family were big equestrians, as was she. I can remember being very small looking up at the tiles around our fireplace that had horses on them and being absolutely mesmerized. I began riding lessons when I was five years old and it just went on from there.
Leah: How did you and your horses end up at a treatment center?
Dede: I have always had horses, but my promise to myself as a recovering person was to live with my horses on a farm—something I longed to do since I was a child. Twenty years ago my husband and I did just that. I have a private practice at my barn using my horses, but the treatment center I work for has always had their own herd. When The Ranch opened almost sixteen years ago, I was contacted to begin their equine program. I am grateful to a woman named Sandra Loggins, who gave them my name. She knew I did experiential and recovery work in my private practice, and that I was a licensed professional counselor who knew horses very well.
Leah: What kind of role did your own sobriety play in your decision to begin practicing equine therapy?
Dede: If I hadn’t been in recovery, I could not have pulled it off! The way this feels so natural to me and the devotion I have for learning everything can only come with a purpose in life. Recovery gave that to me, and the sense of responsibility necessary to take care of it.
Leah: What specific mental and/or physical health diagnoses do you treat using equine therapy at The Ranch?
Dede: The Ranch is a dual-diagnosis center, meaning we tackle addiction and most psychiatric disorders. Codependency, grief, and loss are included in that. We are also known for the incredible trauma work we provide.
Leah: Your model for treatment is called Experiential Equine Therapy (EEC). How did that originate?
Dede: Well, when I started I was really just winging it. However, two things came to light very quickly. Firstly, there was definitely a need for educating clients on how to be with horses safely on the ground. This was an important measure I had to have in place when I taught riding lessons. Secondly, I recognized the same dynamics occurring between people and the horses that happened strictly between people in my actual office. Additionally, the same interventions—which were about meeting needs—had the same healing effect. My model picked up from there. It is simply amazing to me how language, concepts, somatic, and expressive work all occur in the equine work just as it comes about in a regular office setting between two people.
Leah: Can you tell us a little bit about the horses you have at your barn, their personalities, and perhaps their unique characteristics that help your clients?
Dede: Savvy is my twenty-seven-year-old veteran at this. She lets her needs be known and still wants to be involved in that she is demonstrative about “being seen and heard.” People are drawn to her because she has great integrity.
Scooter is a big, grey gelding. He adores attention and can be a bit dramatic in all his expressiveness, but he tunes in when it counts. He is the most sensitive horse I have in that he feels if people are distracted or nervous and demonstrates this through becoming antsy. He requires clients to manage their own emotions and respect his needs as well.
Sox is a fourteen-year-old little pony with a gigantic personality. I added him to the barn to help the kids this year. He is very gentle on the ground and the kids love him. He’s very funny in that he will pick up things or disassemble the barn if he can get away with it. One little girl would giggle and call him “bad Socks.”
Buddy is the most recent addition. He is shy but so willing. He teaches that trust needs to be built and good things happen with time; I am always amazed how he does his part of the work in a session.
Dede: Every week, several people refer to the horses as “big.” This has occurred for years. The experience of “big,” or having a large animal around them, is also associated with a sense of awe. Since I work with a lot of trauma survivors, they have shown me in their process that horses, in their “big” presentation tap into the limbic system, which allows people to have reparative moments in numerous ways. Just being able to lean their heads on the horse for support can often lead to crying. My standing between a scared client and the horse, if I sense that they are losing a sense of self, often brings relaxation. Then the clients have access to their body-mind and can follow through with what they desire to do: lead, pat, or push the horse back.
Leah: Would you say that horses can provide something specific to animal assisted therapy that other animals can’t?
Dede: I’m a lover of all animals. Because of the previously mentioned things, I do believe horses hold a magical place in the animal assisted psychotherapy world. However, I’ll tell you another piece of it. I see small children at my barn that have been removed from their homes due to horrible abuse and neglect. I’ve had several kids that would initially engage a pony, become very overwhelmed, and need to move away. They would seek solace from my barn cat, Cleo, and my pet duck, Mr. Duck. This was a regular part of their work and was supported totally as the kids were learning that they had choices to attach and detach. They could self-soothe and regulate their own emotions. This is the exact same need of adult clients! Over time, these kids now manage to do their own equine work, in every way, with supervision and support. Cleo is still right there and Mr. Duck comes in to hang out as well.
Leah: Are Cleo and Mr. Duck therapy animals as well?
Dede: Sure, Cleo wouldn’t be left out of anything and Mr. Duck delights the kids because he tugs on their pants until they feed him from their hand.
Dede: There have been goats in the past and of course our dog, Brindle Nicole. They are involved from time to time, but the main “co-therapists” are the horses, Cleo, and Mr. Duck.
Leah: It sounds like you have a veritable zoo of animals that help you in treating your clients! Thank you so much for sharing your work with Counselor’s readers.