#UPGraduation2022: Therapy dog takes centre stage in UP PhD graduate’s study

Posted on May 12, 2022

Morkie the dog has been much more than a loving companion to University of Pretoria (UP) graduate Dr Suné Scholtz – in fact, the 15-year-old Maltese-Yorkshire Terrier cross was instrumental in helping her to obtain her Doctorate in Educational Psychology.

Titled ‘An auto-ethnography of a therapy dog’s role in establishing a therapeutic bond’, the UP graduate’s doctoral study analysed and described the role that Morkie played in establishing a bond between Dr Scholtz and children in play therapy.

“A therapy dog can assist a play therapist by creating an environment where young clients feel comfortable and unconditionally accepted,” she explains. “The dog can also act as an ice-breaker by promoting conversation and communication between the therapist and clients, creating a climate of trust and safety. A dog’s playful nature facilitates playfulness in therapy.”

Dr Scholtz chose the field of educational psychology because altruism has always been at the centre of her purpose in life. The idea of helping others, she says, was instilled in her through the storytelling culture in which she was brought up.

“My father’s roots are found in the Kalahari and my mother’s are in the Northern Cape – both regions place immense value in storytelling,” Dr Scholtz explains. “The stories contain mostly animals, and the people are often extremely expressive in their descriptions. We grew up around campfires listening to stories that were characterised by the attribution of human characteristics to animals, and where animals came to life to teach you certain life lessons. Ever since I can remember, I loved helping people and animals.”

Maltese-Yorkshire Terrier cross Morkie with UP graduate Dr Suné Scholtz.

Dr Suné Scholtz describes Morkie as a playful, positive little dog. 

The mutually beneficial relationship that exists between humans and animals is what inspired Dr Scholtz to explore the field of animal-assisted play therapy™. While still relatively new in South Africa, the field is described by experts as “the integrated involvement of animals in the context of play therapy, in which appropriately trained therapists and animals engage with clients primarily through systematic playful interventions, with the goal of improving clients’ developmental and psychosocial health, while simultaneously ensuring the animal’s well-being and voluntary engagement. Play and playfulness are essential ingredients of the interactions and the relationship”. (revised from VanFleet, 2004, 2008a; VanFleet & Faa-Thompson as cited in VanFleet & Faa-Thompson, 2017, p. 17).

When an 8-week-old Morkie came into Dr Scholtz life in December 2006 as a gift from her parents, she was just glad to have an animal companion. But she soon discovered the dog’s ability to interact with children. This prompted her to begin training the dog herself, given that there isn’t much research and training in this field available in South Africa.

“I also consulted with several animal behaviourists,” Dr Scholtz says, “and ensured that I was properly trained to work with Morkie by completing training in animal behaviour and in animal-assisted play therapy™. Now Morkie knows so many tricks! She responds to hand signals and voice commands.”

Dr Scholtz describes Morkie as a playful, positive little dog. This has come in handy, particularly in sessions with young clients.

“Morkie is able to sense people’s emotions and can adjust her behaviour to adapt to the person in front of her,” Dr Scholtz says. “She would often comfort children when they felt sad. She would sit next to them or stare at them, and if they cried, she would move closer. If they allowed it, she would lick the tears on their cheeks. Morkie would even have tears in her eyes – I can’t explain this, but the children often told me that she was crying and that Morkie knew how they felt. She made them feel accepted and seemed to have empathy – even if that was only what the children experienced, that is power enough.”

Dr Scholtz’s animal-assisted therapy approach has extended to her private practice at Grayston Preparatory School in Johannesburg, where Morkie has helped Dr Scholtz and the school to support children who are coping with bullying and anxiety. (Morkie even has a school uniform.)

“In order to support children who are dealing with bullying, we made several posters that featured Morkie stating that she wants to help, and that children can email her if they need help,” Dr Scholtz says. “I made it clear that I will be helping Morkie with her emails. We made a postbox for younger children [grades 1 to 3] so they could post a letter to Morkie. This initiative worked well. Children seemed to feel safe enough to contact Morkie when necessary; it provided a safe ‘helpline’ for children.”

Due to Morkie’s advanced age, Dr Scholtz has decided to retire her beloved companion from therapy work, and has started training Mzansi as her new therapy dog. Mzansi is also a Yorkie crossbreed.

Now that she has completed her PhD, Dr Scholtz is looking forward to dedicating more time to her practice and enjoying a bit of free time. Though she looks back fondly at her time at UP. “I liked the way UP made me ‘feel’. I felt comfortable. I liked what they offered, how they worked and the way in which we were trained.”

For anyone looking to further their studies at UP, Dr Scholtz has a piece of advice: “Go for it! My dad always told me, ‘Education is something that nobody can take away from you.’ I agree with this; it is something that you will always have to your name.”

- Author Masego Panyane
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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