NDSU counselor, grad student finds niche with animal-assisted therapy
Published March 28, 2014
For about a year and a half, an English setter named Brinkley would greet visitors to the NDSU Counseling Center with friendly sniffs and nudges.
“Are you a dog person?” Amber Bach-Gorman, Brinkley’s owner and a therapist at the counseling center, would ask.
Once you sat down, Brinkley would sidle up to be petted or flop down on your feet. If you weren’t a dog person, that was OK. Brinkley would retire to his pillow, gazing at his owner.
Bach-Gorman started bringing Brinkley, a certified therapy dog, to the NDSU campus in July 2012. Brinkley’s job was to support Bach-Gorman’s work as a therapist by putting students at ease.
“We can still do good work and make good connections as therapists,” Bach-Gorman said. “Animals just support what we do.”
Bach-Gorman’s interest in animal-assisted therapy stems from her life-long love of dogs. From growing up around dogs on her family’s hobby farm near Wyndmere, N.D., she had observed how people respond to friendly, well-behaved dogs. As a mental health professional, she was familiar with the research that shows animals reduce stress hormones in people and promote human connection. Training her pet to be part of her professional life made sense.
“Clients saw how much Brinkley trusted me, so that helped them learn to trust me more quickly,” she said. “Brinkley’s presence helped build rapport.”
Therapy dogs are not a regular sight on most campuses, but they are becoming more common. Colleagues from other colleges and universities often contact Bach-Gorman about the steps she took to bring Brinkley to campus as her therapy partner.
Once she had the appropriate approval, she wondered how Brinkley’s presence would be received. Would he be a problem for people with allergies? Would people object?
As it turned out, the response was incredibly positive. Counseling center colleagues considered Brinkley part of the team, listing him as staff on the center’s website. Brinkley’s presence at counseling sessions and support groups helped break the ice by starting conversations about students’ pets.
The counseling center also hosts campus events to teach students healthy ways to manage stress. When Brinkley showed up, students swarmed around him. The students loved every moment. And Brinkley was in his element.
Then in spring 2013, Bach-Gorman got devastating news. Brinkley had an aggressive form of cancer.
He had surgery to remove a mass on his spleen and started chemotherapy. After his first treatment, he was listless and refused food. Bach-Gorman started to doubt her decision to treat the disease.
But she wasn’t ready to give up.
She started researching clinical trials and found one that sounded like a match at the University of Minnesota. When she called the number listed, she expected to get voicemail. Instead Amber Winter, who Bach-Gorman would later learn was an NDSU graduate, answered the phone. Within an hour and a half, Brinkley had an appointment, and Bach-Gorman had hope.
Brinkley qualified for the trial. The experimental treatment wasn’t a cure, but it had the potential to help him live longer and to have better quality of life.
And his participation also had the potential to benefit people who get the same form of cancer. “What is amazing is that this may be used as a treatment in humans,” Bach-Gorman said. “If you have to have a terrible diagnosis, let’s make something meaningful out of a terrible situation.”
For many months, the experimental treatment worked. Brinkley looked and acted like a healthy dog and couldn’t wait to hop in the car for the drive to campus.
Then in November, in a matter of days, Brinkley’s health quickly declined. The time had come for Bach-Gorman to say good-bye to her beloved Brinkley.
She expected to grieve privately, and took a day off work to pull herself together. She thought about the best way to deliver the news to students she worked with and what she would do about events she had planned to bring Brinkley to. She thought about whether she would continue to pursue animal-assisted therapy.
When she returned to the office, she found deep empathy from coworkers and students who knew Brinkley. “Losing a dog is different when the dog comes to work with you,” she said.
As Bach-Gorman had conversations about Brinkley’s death, she also saw great desire to continue what he started. People asked when her other English setter, Oliver, would be certified and ready to work as a therapy dog—not as a replacement for the Brinkley they knew and loved, but because they believed his role had been beneficial.
Around the same time, Bach-Gorman collaborated with the NDSU Libraries to bring several therapy dogs to campus the week before finals. The dogs were available for students to interact with as a stress reliever during a pressure-filled time of the semester.
The event was a success. The Weber Reading room was filled with playful dogs and smiling students. Bach-Gorman couldn’t stop smiling herself as she watched the happy, delightful chaos.
It was clear Brinkley, NDSU’s first therapy dog, had started something people responded to. And Bach-Gorman had found her niche as a therapist.
Brinkley’s pillow in Ceres 212 is unoccupied right now, but Bach-Gorman is in the process of training one of Brinkley’s relatives to work as a therapy dog. She expects Oliver to be certified and on campus by fall 2014.
Bach-Gorman also is a graduate student in the counselor education and supervision program at NDSU where she is working to expand the body of knowledge on animal- assisted therapy.
She plans to collaborate with a therapeutic working ranch that provides canine animal-assisted therapy to at-risk youth. Her doctoral research will focus on capturing the experiences of children participating in a canine-specific therapy program while living in a residential treatment program.
“We have a lot of anecdotes about what we see in group, but this study will provide a better understanding of how this type of therapy affects children’s understanding of their relationship with themselves and others,” she said.
Bach-Gorman expects to graduate with her doctorate in December 2014.