Inside Life of a Play Therapy Dog

Sita helps children and adults process their feelings through activity.
By: Stacia Friedman
Sita the play therapy dog

Sita, an 18-month old Golden Retriever, loves her job. She recently got to spend time with Emma, a 4-year-old girl who had been severely bitten on the cheek by her grandfather’s dog. The trauma, which caused her to be terrified of all dogs, was the reason her mother brought her to see Sita. 

“First, the little girl watched as her mother pet Sita, then Sita left. At her next session, Emma expressed a desire to join her mother in petting Sita,” says Dottie Higgins-Klein, clinical director of the Family & Play Therapy Center in Philadelphia. “Eventually, she was hugging and petting Sita on her own, without fear. This helped Emma overcome her trauma, regain her confidence and interact with animals in the outside world.”

Sita works as a play therapy dog at the center to help children and adults achieve their therapy goals.

“Sita’s been involved in my practice since she was a puppy,” says Higgins-Klein. “She has an usually gentle disposition and provides comfort and calm when clients experience anxiety, depression or are overwhelmed by their emotions.”

When Sita feels especially trusting, she lies down on her back, stretches out and allows the child or adult to stroke her belly. If a client is distressed, Sita rests her head on their knee and stares up with her soulful amber eyes.

“Just the act of petting her soft, silky fur makes it easier to process their feelings,” says Higgins-Klein.

Unlike traditional talk therapy, animal assisted play therapy involves using sand trays and miniature plastic figurines to help children or adults act out their feelings.

Higgins-Klein has integrated therapy dogs into her practice for the last 20 years.

“Sita is the official greeter, smiling and wagging her tail, eager to be involved. The only time Sita isn’t involved is when a client is allergic or doesn’t like dogs,” Higgins-Klein says.

Sita has an active schedule, working in the therapy center three days a week from 9 to 5, plus participating in play therapy training sessions for adult students one day a week. However, she isn’t just a working partner. She’s part of the Higgins-Klein household, which includes a cat named Dharma and grandchildren who visit frequently.

“On weekends, we take Sita to a local dog park for a run or to a dog beach at the Jersey Shore. She loves to play in the ocean. We make sure Sita gets plenty of exercise and opportunities to cavort with other canines,” Higgins-Klein says.

Training a Play Therapy Dog

Training a play therapy dog like Sita is different from training other service dogs, emotional support dogs or therapy animals, as is the certification process, says Dr. Rise VanFleet, director of the Family Enhancement and Play Therapy Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In addition to training play therapy dogs, VanFleet offers dog training and behavioral consultation services for families.

“Choosing a play therapy dog starts with selection,” says VanFleet. “Having a puppy, rather than an older dog, allows you to help get them used to a lot of things and have positive experiences. You’re looking for playfulness and sociability.”

VanFleet finds her therapy dogs at the local rescue shelter where she volunteers. Kirrie, a mixed breed Border Collie, just retired from 11 years of working with her in play therapy. Murrie, a Border Collie-Greyhound mix, is just about to start. In addition to her two therapy dogs, VanFleet, who lives in rural Pennsylvania, has an Australian Shepard and two cats.

In her 40 years of practice, VanFleet has observed how play therapy dogs are helpful when a child is dealing with difficult issues.

“I see a lot of kids in foster care system who have attachment or trauma problems. They are slow to open up in therapy,” she says. “If we bring in a dog, we find that we can connect much quicker and build trust. The child’s interaction with the therapy dog becomes a template for positive relationships with people.”