Sweet-natured and affectionate Thea isn’t your run of the mill therapy cat. The four-year-old Sphynx is winning the hearts and minds of children at Crisis Center North (CCN), a domestic violence counselling and education center in Pennsylvania, thanks to her presence in therapy sessions and online meditation classes.
While a meditating therapy cat may seem somewhat far fetched, Thea has started to attract global attention for her work at CCN. As the only feline on the Paws Empowerment team, a program dedicated to using animals as a form of therapy for survivors of domestic violence, Thea works with children aged 2-19 who live in families experiencing trauma.
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Sydney Stephenson, CCN youth counsellor and Thea’s handler, says "kids come to me because they're in a difficult place — having a really hard time, and nobody likes to talk about difficult things. But having Thea in the sessions is just such a calming presence. It reassures them. It can help them bond with me faster because they see how much she trusts me."
Stephenson used clicker training, a method that teaches animals to associate the sound of a click with a food reward, to teach Thea a variety of tricks, including opening and closing her eyes to look like she’s meditating. "I think it took less than a session, really, for her to understand, 'Ooh, this noise means good things,'" Stephenson said.
Thea now sits in on counselling sessions as well as leading virtual meditation classes and Stephenson believes she’s working wonders, citing the case of one young boy who was resistant to working with her until Thea joined them. "Thea just naturally jumped on his lap. I did not have to prompt her to do that. And he melted," she said. "It was just amazing. He started petting her and she started to purr, and he would answer my questions a little bit more and more. We were finally having a full back-and-forth discussion. It was such a natural process."
Grace Coleman, executive director of CCN, said Thea and the rest of the Paws Empowerment crew are proving invaluable when it comes to teaching children what healthy and non-violent relationships look like. “By utilizing animals, we’re teaching compassion and care and how to love appropriately without harming,” she says. “The children can start developing a caretaking, loving relationship with animals.”
Want to meet some other animals like Thea? Check out Pet Therapy: The amazing animals helping those who need it most and say hello to some of the adorable furry faces that are bringing joy to children and adults alike.
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