Alicia de la Rosa is a psychologist specializing in animal-assisted psychotherapy. She works alongside Onnie, a four-year-old Labrador Retriever, to provide mental health support to victims of torture and extreme violence at the Comprehensive Care Center in Mexico City. The center has been managed by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) since 2017. Here, MSF’s team of doctors, psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, and physiotherapists provides comprehensive—and often long-term—care for people who have experienced horrific journeys along migration routes through the Americas or extreme violence in the countries they fled.
Onnie is trained to provide therapeutic support to children, adolescents, the elderly, and people living with disabilities. The support that Onnie and de la Rosa provide at the center is just one component of the psychosocial care that MSF's patients receive.
“Some of the people who have experienced traumatic situations of extreme violence or torture find it difficult to express their emotions and find trust again in others and in their environment,” said de la Rosa.
“Working with Onnie gives them a chance to break down barriers so that they can open up to therapists and feel confident to talk about the difficult situations they have experienced. The patients at this center have been victims of kidnappings, torture, forced prostitution, threats, mutilation, sexual violence, forced recruitment by organized crime gangs, or have even witnessed the murder of a family member.”
The benefits of animal therapy
Therapy dogs are trained from a very young age. Onnie began his training as a puppy, when he was exposed to different sound stimuli, textures, environments, people, and objects. When he turned one year old, he began his training to become a therapy dog. That training was accompanied by basic obedience classes to learn, for example, to sit, lie down, turn, offer a paw, jump, and move so that patients with motor difficulties can brush or pet him.
Animal-assisted psychotherapy also helps people express their emotions. “There are people with complex trauma who cannot say, ‘Today I am very sad,’ but can say, ‘Today Onnie looks sad,’” said de la Rosa. “That allows psychotherapists to know their mood. Patients also transfer the trust they feel for the dog to the therapist. They think, ‘If Onnie wants to be with Alicia, then it means that I can trust her.’”
How Onnie helps patients work through feelings
Onnie supports many patients at the center, including children, young adults, and families who fled their home countries. The patients show symptoms or acute mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks, or anxiety related to traumatic events and extreme violence they experienced at the hands of gangs, criminal groups, and others.
“Onnie is helping two patients talk about the traumatic experiences they were subjected to,” said de la Rosa. “This helps them redefine their experiences and learn to name their emotions and feelings.” One of these patients is a young man who usually suppresses painful memories and withdraws into himself. When he remembers the traumatic experiences, he is unable to speak or think. That's when Onnie is able to help. “Together they do different activities and exercises that make him feel more relaxed, not threatened, and able to talk about what triggers those traumatic memories,” she said.
Another patient has trouble discerning between her thoughts and reality. She has been hospitalized several times after self-harming. “We are working with her to try to get her to anticipate when her anxiety symptoms and recurring thoughts start,” said de la Rosa. “Onnie was with her during once crisis. He began to put pressure on her lap with his paws and lick her so that she would be aware of her body in that moment. Today the patient’s symptoms have improved quite a lot, and she has been three weeks without any crises.”
At the beginning of a patient’s treatment, the medical and psychology teams work with them to create therapeutic objectives. Once these objectives are met, Onnie’s job is complete. “Patients told in advance that the visits with Onnie will occur between certain dates, so they are prepared in advance for when the animal-assisted therapy will end,” said de la Rosa. “This is because a patient bonds with the dogs, and it is important to close this bond of affection in a positive way.”
Onnie and de la Rosa have been part of MSF’s comprehensive care team for two years. “We are very happy,” said de la Rosa. “We have managed together with everyone involved in the treatment of the survivors to help our patients recover. Seeing an improvement in the quality of life of these people who have suffered so much and who arrive at the center so traumatized, is something that gives us great satisfaction.”