Prioritizing Your Mental Health as a Therapy Dog Handler

by | July 5, 2023 | Blog

Learn how to prioritize your mental health as a therapy dog handler

As therapy dog handlers, we put a lot of effort into training and caring for our dogs. However, my experience with Sunny has taught me that it’s just as important to care for ourselves. This blog post will explore the concept of mental health and self-compassion, and how vital they are for us as therapy dog handlers.

Mental Health and Therapy Dog Teams

Our mental health plays a big role in our lives. It can shape our interactions with others, including our therapy dogs. This connection between us and our dogs is not always immediately apparent, but it’s significant.

Therapy dogs are sensitive to our feelings. If we’re stressed, they can become anxious too. But when we’re calm and happy, they also tend to relax. This is something I’ve noticed with Sunny. When I’m anxious, Sunny often mirrors my emotions. However, when I’m calm, she also seems more relaxed.

Our mental state doesn’t just affect us and our dogs—it also impacts the people we assist. If a therapy dog handler is calm and content, they can better connect with those they’re helping, creating a more comforting and healing atmosphere.

Self-Compassion for Therapy Dog Handlers

In my journey with Sunny, I’ve learned the importance of treating my own mental health with self-compassion.

Psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff introduced self-compassion as the act of treating ourselves with the kindness we would offer a good friend, particularly in challenging times. How can we apply self-compassion as therapy dog handlers?

Dr. Neff proposes several key practices for developing self-compassion and improving mental health:

  1. Acknowledging Painful Moments: We may face difficult situations or setbacks. Self-compassion involves recognizing these painful moments and responding with kindness, rather than trying to ignore or resist the pain.
  2. Understanding Backdraft: When we start practicing self-compassion, we might initially feel more pain, something known as “backdraft”. As we allow ourselves to experience self-love, old pain might resurface. With ongoing mindfulness and self-compassion, we can process and begin to heal this pain.
  3. Learning at Our Own Pace: Developing self-compassion is a journey. Everyone progresses at their own speed. If it seems slow, remember it’s fine to take your time learning self-compassion. The key is to keep moving forward.
  4. Recognizing When to Step Back: Self-compassion includes knowing when strong emotions become too much. If this happens, it’s okay to take a break and focus on other self-care practices like deep breathing or enjoying a favorite activity.

Life Skills for Therapy Dog Teams

Based on this need to prioritize our mental health as handlers, I’ve created a course called “Life Skills for Therapy Dog Teams”. This course is designed to support you and your dog on this journey. It includes:

  • Methods to encourage calmness, resilience, and balance in you and your dog.
  • Engaging, game-based training for your dog.
  • Exercises to help you become more self-aware and compassionate.
  • Practical applications of these skills during therapy work.

By focusing on our mental health and practicing self-compassion, we not only help ourselves. We also positively influence our dogs and the people we serve. As Therapy Dog handlers, the care we show ourselves is reflected in the care we extend to others.

Dig Deeper in My Course

If you’re ready to take your Therapy Dog skills to the next level, learn from my experiences with Sunny, and pay more attention to the often overlooked aspect of the handler’s mental health, enroll in “Life Skills for Therapy Dog Teams” now at sherrierohde.com/course!

A white woman with magenta hair in a grey sweater sitting on steps. A small tan dog with floppy ears is confidently perched on her lap.

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