09/17/12 — Hug counselor: a friend with paws

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Hug counselor: a friend with paws

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 17, 2012 1:46 PM

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Therapy dog Elly enjoys herself as she is petted by children in the kids' play room at Goldsboro Counseling Center. Elly, a 6-month-old golden retriever, who plays the role of a counselor herself, is a favorite among the children and adults who frequent the counseling practice.

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Elly enjoys a belly rub and more petting from the many children at the center.

Every morning, Elly bounds into the office at Goldsboro Counseling Center, eager to begin her job.

She's a gifted listener, and patients often say how much she puts them at ease.

And she accomplishes all of that without saying a word.

The 6-month-old golden retriever actually belongs to Karla Jeffreys, owner and counselor, who started bringing her to the office a few months ago.

Now, Elly is a much-in-demand co-counselor.

More often than not, she is invited to sit on the therapy sessions with patients.

"Animals make a big difference, especially if you battle depression," patient Marcia McCullen said. "An animal can do something that a human cannot."

Patient Jennifer Perry also appreciates the therapy dog-in-training.

"I love stuff like that. It's really great, definitely," she said. "In high school, I actually raised a service dog as part of a senior project, so I understand the need for therapy dogs. I understand the whole social aspect of it. ...

"Dogs have got that unconditional love. No matter what's wrong with you, they'll always be there, that's for sure."

It's even become a part of her regular ritual when she shows up for an appointment, Ms. Perry said.

"I always joke with Karla, 'Can Elly come with us?'" she said. "I call it puppy therapy."

Ms. Jeffreys almost didn't get another pet, and certainly hadn't envisioned going through all the training required.

But she had such good memories of bringing Abby, her golden mix, to the business for the last three years of the dog's life.

"It worked out so well," she recalls. "She loved to walk into the waiting area and greet the clients one by one. Abby could tell if a person did not want to greet or pet her and would pass right by that person. There was even a request or two from people who wanted to see the therapist with the dog."

In March 2011, Abby died, at the age of 15 1/2. The loss was felt not only by Ms. Jeffreys but by her patients as well.

"Children and adults asked about her for over a year after she died," she said. "I convinced myself that I couldn't have another dog. I wouldn't get a puppy and leave it home all day.

"I entertained the thought of getting an older dog, but I wasn't comfortable with having a dog that I didn't know."

It was difficult to think about replacing her beloved Abby, but at the same time she knew another dog would benefit her as well as the patients who shared her feelings.

She got Elly at 8 weeks old and began bringing her to the office the next day.

"This is her second home, and she gets very excited coming in that door because she gets to see people," Ms. Jeffreys said.

Pets tend to have a calming effect, something she witnesses every day in the practice, she said. But there are parameters.

"I only take Elly out when someone requests it," she said. "She has her rules. She has to sit before they speak."

The office dynamic with Elly in its midst is quite something, she admits.

From the children who come in for appointments after school and welcome the chance to play with her, to the adults who request the dog come into session with them.

"There are some people that aren't my clients, they come in once a week and they need their 'Elly time,'" she said. "One of them gets down on the floor with her. Elly just lets her rub her. The other one, they want to see Elly. And then there is one who doesn't want to come in here for her therapy unless Elly is in here.

"We're so open, we can do this kind of thing. We're just real laid-back."

Elly is undergoing training to become a certified therapy dog, Ms. Jeffreys said. She still has a ways to go, but is definitely capable.

"It's a commitment. It's a lot of work," she said. "Every experience is a training experience but it's constant. It's like having a child but even more. We certainly want Elly to be as trained and calm as Abby but there's a process."

The potential for her to thrive, and help others do the same, is great, Ms. Jeffreys said.

"The hardest thing right now is that she loves everybody. I really have to prepare her (for people)," she said. "But it's characteristic -- it's in her character and that's going to make her a great therapy dog."