Healing Trauma With Pets

Sunday April 24, 2022 was National Pet Parent Day. I’m a pet parent to 3 fur babies - Pig, Rey, and Peanut. I love animals of all kinds, but I have to admit dogs are my favorite. One of the things that truly amazes me about dogs is their distinct personalities just like people. Each of my 3 fur kids is very different in personality and each of them bring me such joy and comfort when I need it.

Rey is a beautiful black and white English Pointer and Border Collie mix. She’s nervous and can’t decide if she’s supposed to hunt or heard. She loves candy and comes running to the rustle of a plastic bag. She’s the oldest of our pack. Peanut is the baby of the pack, and she is a Pittxer - a pittbull boxer mix. When she plays she bounces around the yard like a young fawn following its mother through the woods. She loves squeaky toys and to unstuff things. Last but not least is Pig aka Pig the Law Dog. Pig is a Pitbull mutt and has more personality than any dog I’ve ever met. He reminds me of a friend from high school who was the consummate All American sports star - he is friendly, open, happy, and everyone loves him. However, Pig doesn’t know he’s a dog, Pig is a people in a dog disguise. Pig was supposed to be a summer project for my oldest daughter between graduating high school and starting college. She was to foster him, train him and place him (not with me). He came to us named Teddy which did not fit him so Madeline named him Merlin. But Merlin didn’t fit either and since he oinked and grunted like a pig he became Pig. Today Pig and I are inseparable, largely due to his anxiety and trauma over being confined, so he goes nearly everywhere with me. Pig was abused and has a leg injury because he was allegedly trapped. I don’t believe the story given. I think he was abused and likely a bait dog. A bait dog is dog that is used as a target for teaching other dogs to fight. Pig has some suspicious scars and his leg was repeatedly broken in the same place likely to keep him from getting away. Pig has never met a stranger, always has a smile, and is generally the happiest dog I’ve ever seen. He loves to curl up in blankets and just be as close to his people as possible. Pig is the prime example of stereotypes, whether human or animal, being wrong. He is the exact opposite of all things claimed about his breed. Pig is our firm therapy dog and my Emotional Support Animal (ESA). Through his training he has had to unlearn a lot of bad habits developed from his puppy trauma. A therapy dog is a dog who’s job it is to provide psychological or physiological therapy to people. A therapy dog has to have a stable temperament and a friendly and easy going personality. Therapy dogs go with volunteers to places like schools, hospitals, hospices, courts, etc. to help relieve stress, loneliness, or build confidence of those in need. To be a therapy dog, the dog must at a minimum pass the AKC Good Citizen Test. Therapy dogs do not have the same protections as a Service Dog or an ESA. Unless they are also certified as a Service Dog or ESA, a therapy dog is legally just a pet. An ESA has more protections than a pet mainly in terms of housing. Under the Fair Housing Act an ESA is an assistance animal not a pet and a reasonable accommodation for an individual with a disability like depression, anxiety, or PTSD. ESA’s cannot be restricted based on breed, weight, or size. A provider cannot charge a fee or deposit in regard to an ESA. Additionally, they cannot request detailed information on a tenant’s condition or medical history to qualify the animal. Many public accommodations will allow an ESA into their establishment but the owner must control the animal and is liable for its conduct. A Service Animal is not legally a pet and can go anywhere a person can go. Only dogs qualify as service animals. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person's disability. They may assist with walking, opening doors, retrieving objects, notifying of eminent seizures or blood sugar changes or other such things. Full on service dogs go through years of training to assist their handlers. However, there are no specific legal requirements for training and a service animal can be trained by the person it assists. Therapy dogs, ESA’s, and service animals all provide wonderful services for individuals and families impacted by the court system. We are seeing therapy dogs being utilized in court for victims of abuse when they testify to provide a calming presence. Having a therapy dog at our firm helps calm our adult and child clients alike. I find its often much easier for them to talk with me about their problems and fears when they have someone like Pig sitting next to them offering comfort. I believe that animals are an integral part of healing from trauma. I also think there is something prophetic in a Pitbull being a therapy dog helping children and families overcome their traumas. Pitbulls are stigmatized as a breed for the bad choices of others. Likewise the families in our juvenile justice system often face stigmas because of past abuse or addiction in their homes when they have worked to overcome those past mistakes. Pig and I have healed each other though some very rough times and I believe that Pig and dogs like him can be an integral part of healing for our families in Canadian County.


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Rachel Bussett is an attorney with 19 years of experience. She is motivated and inspired to fight for kids and all Oklahomans. 

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