Healing with the Human-Animal Bond: An Interview with Kate Nicoll
With over 20 years of clinical experience, Kate Nicoll is more than familiar working with individuals coping with trauma, grief, or illness. Nicoll, founder of Soul Friends: Animal-Assisted Therapy Programs of Connecticut, earned her MSW from Smith College and her BSW from Elms College. She also completed a graduate certificate in Animal Assisted Therapy and Education from DePaul University. Nicoll has combined her extensive education and experience to create programs that assist the social and emotional needs of children by using the extraordinary power of animals.
Nicoll gathers her inspiration from personal experience. When she was young, she underwent a spinal cord injury leaving her with a disability. During this time, Nicoll’s dog was a large part of her life. She was amazed by the impact her companion had on her well-being and was surprised to find that her dog was very perceptive of her pain and anxiety. After experiencing the benefits personally, she decided she needed to learn more about the human-animal connection. She described the result of this interest as, “Something more than I ever thought was possible.”
In 2003, Nicoll went on to create the non-profit organization, Soul Friends. Soul Friends works with individuals from ages 3 through 21 on social and emotional issues they may be struggling with. By implementing animal-assisted intervention and therapy, Soul Friends is able to help children suffering from extreme trauma and grief in a way that promotes comfort and healing. She explains, “Kids are often comforted by animals in ways they don’t receive from adults.”
Soul Friends offers a myriad of programs to help children suffering from different disabilities and issues. One of the most interesting opportunities provided by the organization is the Heeling Hearts Program. The program consists of psychotherapy sessions for groups of children who are considered at-risk, those living with loss, and children struggling with emotional or social trauma. The program is based around the narrative of the therapy animal’s life. This exercise is aimed to improve empathy among the children as well as help them relate their issues to others’ trauma experiences. “It is often easier for these children to demonstrate empathy for an animal than it is with other people,” Nicoll says.
On a couple of occasions the program has worked with anger management groups and juvenile prison programs. While these children are often upset and angry toward people, Nicoll has said that the same is not true about their interactions with animals. She noticed that the children would immediately show interest in the dog and would often lose themselves in the moment while playing and petting the animal. Nicoll comments, “Interacting with animals allows them to be their pre-defensive, natural selves in ways that other therapies don’t allow children to do.” The program has shown positive trends for the children’s compassion and even an improvement in peer relations amongst the children who attended the therapy sessions.
Soul Friends also has programs that provide humane education to younger children. The We Love Animals! program allows children to have positive experiences with animals and gain better attitudes about animal treatment and interaction. “The children may have experienced instances of being jumped on by a dog or being bitten by a dog. And I think human education programs let kids see the positive parts of our interactions with animals,” Nicoll says.
Nicoll not only pulls from personal experience to help guide her work, but also uses the research that is being done in the field. Soul Friends conducts research and works with other organizations to provide information on the results of their programs. Soul Friends contributes not only their services to the field but also records the impact their programs are having on individuals and the community.
Nicoll presented research conducted by Soul Friends at the international Applied Behavioral Analysis Conference. Their research involved the Come, Follow Me! program at Soul Friends which provides children on the autism spectrum with social skills development while training a therapy dog. The program includes the use of Teaching with Acoustical Guidance (TAG) in which clickers were used as part of the education process to help improve eye contact and body control in the participants. The research they conducted with the program showed that this method has consistent positive results for the child participants. “The program is only five or six sessions of therapeutic intervention in a group setting for kids, so we found that it is not a lot of intervention to get a lot of impact,” Nicoll says.
Soul Friends research has also been published in the peer reviewed journal Society and Animals. Soul Friends conducted research on the impact of animals in an educational setting. The organization did studies on education and the changes in performance levels after animal visitations took place. The study found that not only were there positive results from animal visitation on performance but that there were lingering positive results months after the animal were present.
Soul Friends also serves as a field education site for graduate students. They have had approximately six masters’ theses done on their programs. Each program provided at Soul Friends also participates in individual and group outcome measures to study the results of each exercise. Soul Friends strives to provide not only life changing programs but also awareness and knowledge to the animal-assisted therapy and intervention community.
While Nicoll works to help the animal-assisted therapy community, she knows the importance of remaining aware of current developments in the field. Nicoll expressed interest in watching how animal-assisted therapy legislation will continue to play out. Connecticut passed the first animal-assisted therapy bill in 2013. The bill highlights education about the benefits of the human-animal bond, collaboration between mental health care providers and therapy animal programs, and the development of an animal-assisted canine response team. “With the legislation has come some challenges and some wonderful opportunities,” she says. “I think there is going to need to be partnership between animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy and some distinctions made between animal-assisted activities that are volunteer driven versus animal-assisted interventions that are therapeutically driven.” Nicoll recognized the vast amount of work that consistently needs to be done in the field and emphasized the need for collaboration between volunteer-based activities and therapy-based activities to provide the right kind of service for each individual in need.
Nicoll and the Soul Friends organization are continuing to provide life-changing services to their clients. When asked her most gratifying experience, Nicoll said, “I think my most rewarding experiences have been in-the-moment experiences. Which has been thousands of them.”