As assistance animals and animal-assisted therapy become increasingly popular and visible in our communities, these amazing and helpful pets are spreading their wings, paws and hooves into new therapeutic modalities. One example is the use of these loving agents of comfort in the treatment of patients battling eating disorders.
Shannon Kopp, author of Pound for Pound: A Story of One Woman’s Recovery and the Shelter Dogs Who Loved Her Back to Life, has first-hand experience with both the struggle of overcoming bulimia as well as the inspiring shelter dogs she now works with to help other women like herself. In 2016, Kopp launched the group therapy workshop SoulPaws, along with Dr. Annie Petersen (Ed.D.)of the Association for Human-Animal Bond Studies, at the San Diego Humane Society.
Kopp’s struggle with bulimia started when she was a teenager. Grief over family troubles led to binge eating which led to shame over gaining weight, and soon she was both bingeing and purging.
“I distinctly remember looking in the mirror after I purged and not only feeling physically lighter, but emotionally lighter as well,” Kopp tells PEOPLE. “Like I was purging the thoughts and emotions that seemed too big to handle.”
At the age of 23, Kopp was hospitalized and entered a rehab center for bulimia and depression. At that facility, she experienced equine therapy for the first time.
“The experience meant so much to me and reminded me of who I was before the eating disorder started: an animal lover, ” says Kopp. “When I left treatment, I knew that I had to find a way to work with animals. It seemed almost as important as following my meal plan and continuing to work with a therapist.”
Upon leaving the program, Kopp began working at the San Diego Humane Society. Unfortunately, she relapsed and began to struggle with the cycle of bulimia once again. Kopp told her therapist about bingeing on sweets during work, and the therapist suggested that the next time she had that urge during work, to instead commit herself to visiting with a shelter dog. That was the ticket.
“Instead of turning left to go to the bathroom, I watched myself turn right to go to the dog kennels. It was almost an out-of-body experience,” Kopp recalls. “For the next thirty minutes, I sat with a white, 60-lb. pit bull I’d come to love. She was admitted into the shelter after being hit by a car, and now one front leg was slightly shorter than the other. When she walked, she had an adorable strut, an irresistible wiggle, and a butt so big and noticeable I nicknamed her Kim K. This dog climbed into my lap and looked into my eyes and showered me with love and affection. I talked to her. I cried into her white coat. I hugged her through the physical and emotional discomfort. And I did not leave her kennel until I was sure that I would not purge.”
From that day on, whenever Kopp felt depressed or overwhelmed, she’d find a big dog and hold it like an anchor, as waves of emotion and destructive urges passed through and out of her. Kopp’s love for these dogs — and their loving care for her — is the reason she founded SoulPaws.
After publishing her book, Kopp wanted to do more to share the healing experience she’d discovered through working at the Humane Society. She approached friend and colleague Dr. Annie Petersen (seen below with a therapy mini horse) about creating a program specifically for people who struggle with food and body issues.
Kopp and Petersen offered their first SoulPaws workshop in 2016 in San Diego to people who were struggling with eating disorders. They partnered with Paws’itive Teams, a program composed of certified therapy dogs and volunteers. Petersen wrote the curriculum for the hour-long workshop, which involved a group animal-assisted therapy activity, journaling and discussion on recovery-oriented topics, and 20 minutes of silent alone time with the animals. The workshop was a success and the duo knew there was a great need for this free program in their community, as eating disorder treatment is very expensive and usually not covered by insurance. Thus, Kopp began the process of founding the nonprofit.
Today, SoulPaws — with the aid of partner organizations Association for Human-Animal Bond Studies, Hooves and Paws therapy animals and the San Diego Humane Society — offers monthly workshops at the San Diego Humane Society and online workshops. Kopp plans to expand the program to Orange County by 2018. The mission: inspire change through the healing power of the human-animal connection.
“The lack of judgment, lack of expectations, nonverbal interaction, unconditionally, sensory engagement through touch, evident behavior of the animal, and restorative/fun experience are elements that have made the human-animal interaction qualitatively different from human interactions,” says SoulPaws board member Dr. Patricia Flaherty Fischette, Ph.D.
Each workshop is run by a trained SoulPaws facilitator (therapists, interns training to become licensed therapists or licensed clinical social workers) and has a different theme. These themed workshops include concepts like living in the moment, compassion, acceptance, vulnerability and resilience. For each workshop, SoulPaws rotates between using therapy dogs, miniature horses or other small animals, such as rabbits, guinea pigs and rats, all provided by the Association for Human-Animal Bond Studies, Hooves and Paws therapy animals and the San Diego Humane Society. A typical workshop might consist of up to 20 participants, typically females ranging in age from 12 to 60, who sit in a circle with the animals. The animals are introduced, Kopp says, and then a group therapy activity takes place.
“Sometimes this is as simple as a meditation, observing the animals walking around the room for a few minutes, observing their breath and body language. Other times it is playing and interacting with the animals,” Kopp tells PEOPLE.
Often a topic is announced, and the women scatter across the room with a provided journal, cushion and pen. The animals visit each person individually, for up to five minutes at a time. During this 20 minutes of silent time, participants may pet the animal, hold them in their laps, write about the animal and interact with the animal in a way that feels healing. Afterwards, the group comes back together in a circle to share their journaling and how they felt about the animal interactions. During this time, the animals continue to comfort the SoulPaws group members.
“The animals comfort the participants with their physical presence, inspire them with their stories of resilience and work with the participants through a variety of activities to help them experience a deeper level of self-awareness,” Kopp explains. “Eating disorders are often described as a disease of disconnection. The goal of SoulPaws is to not only help the participants connect with animals and each other, but to experience a freedom or separation for the eating disorder and a connection or reunion with their true, authentic selves.”
To learn more about this unique program, find SoulPaws on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, and visit the website here. You can also donate to SoulPaws through its Crowdrise Campaign, which will help the team raise funds to expand its programming.