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‘It always felt like my calling’: Wolfville counsellor offering animal-assisted therapy with pet lab

Julia Wassef and her lovable lab Figgy Duff offer professional animal-assisted therapy services.
Julia Wassef and her lovable lab Figgy Duff offer professional animal-assisted therapy services. - Ashley Thompson

WOLFVILLE, NS - Julia Wassef’s beloved black lab is both a faithful companion and model colleague.

The pair can regularly be found at the Acadia University Student Counselling Centre, where Wassef offers animal-assisted therapy services.

“I knew that when I was around an animal I felt calm. Even as a child, when I was sad, I would go to animals and they were where I found comfort,” says Wassef.

“When I look back, it always felt like my calling.”

Wassef obtained a graduate certificate in animal-assisted therapy, activities and learning from the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver. Her therapy dog, Figgy Duff, is trained to be a partner in the counselling process.

“He’s a partner but he doesn’t have a voice, so my job is to make sure that his needs are taken care of, that he’s not overworked,” she says.

Figgy typically joins her in the office for two half-days each week. The dog’s presence is calming and comforting for many clients, and Wassef finds the topic of animal care is a great way to lead into discussions about the importance of self-care through nourishment, enrichment, fun, love, connection and good food.
“The things that he needs in his life are the same things that we need,” says Wassef.

Read more about other Kings County therapy dogs at work:

• A furry friend, indeed: therapy dog big hit at Berwick’s Grand View Manor

On the job

Figgy’s interactions with clients vary from interactive games that build a connection to sensory exercises that are helpful grounding exercises.

“An animal is non-judgmental so people often feel safer with an animal,” says Wassef.

Wassef has watched Figgy form connections with people struggling with isolation, depression, anxiety and loneliness time and time again.

“We know that just stroking a dog can lower your blood pressure and when your blood pressure is lower it lowers your risk for other kinds of health (conditions). I think that it is emotionally healthy having something to care about other than yourself.”

Wassef is careful to pay attention to Figgy’s body language and ensure he has choices when it comes to his level of participation on the job. If Figgy retires to the dog bed in the office, he’s on break. It’s all part of nurturing a bond built on kindness, respect and trust.

“He trusts that I will take care of him and he also trusts that if he’s not comfortable, I’ll respect that,” she says, adding that Figgy’s training solely relies on positive, reward-based conditioning techniques.

In order for more health professionals at the local level to start offering animal-assisted therapy, Wassef says steps must be taken to ensure the proper training is available closer to home.

“Before we have more animals like Figgy, I think what we need is a process to make it easier to have more animals like Figgy,” she says, adding that it is imperative informed regulations are in place.

“It’s very ethical work. There’s a lot that goes into integrating an animal into a treatment plan for somebody.”

Be it at home or at work, Wassef and Figgy spend most of their time together.

“It’s very special,” she says.

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