Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Interview with Catherine Grace O'Connell, Founder of the Forever Fierce Revolution

Hello!  Today I have a very special guest to introduce you to.  Her name is Catherine Grace O’Connell and she is the leader of the Forever Fierce Revolution and also runs her own fashion and lifestyle blog CatherineGraceO.com .  I wanted to interview Catherine for quite some time because my personal feeling about beauty and aging is that all women are beautiful regardless of what age they are.  To me beauty exists both inside and out.  I feel that the more life experience we have, the greater wisdom we have to share with the rest of the world as well, and that wisdom makes us shine even brighter. 

So, here we go…

Hi Catherine!  Thank you for spending your time with us today.

You have accomplished so much in your life!  I am super impressed.  Can you please tell us a little about your background?

Thank you so much, Joanna. I’m honored and always humbled. I’m 57 and coming back from almost losing my life to Lyme Disease just 3 and a half years ago. My voice was silenced by abuse at a young age and the abuse and trauma continued to play out throughout my life and my marriage. I left a 20 year marriage after breaking into a million pieces. I moved out to LA to get my Masters in Spiritual Psychology and to begin a new life. Not long after, I had a series of very serious and life threatening health challenges. After over a decade searching for answers, I was finally diagnosed with late stage Lyme Disease in the spring of 2014. By then, the disease had spread to my brain and within a month of treatment, I couldn’t walk for a year due to daily seizures. On 11/11/14, I went through a Near Death Experience and didn’t understand why I survived…until now. Finding my voice and launching my blog was the key to saving my life. I set an intention to use my blog as a platform and my voice to empower and inspire through my story.

How did fashion play a role in your healing from lyme disease?

My love for fashion is literally in my DNA. As a little girl, my bed would be strewn with  fashion magazines and I would dream of being in the pages. I found that fashion changed the way that I felt immediately. 3 years ago, my daughter encouraged me to start an Instagram account. Honestly, I had never heard of Instagram. She began taking photos of me and I decided to use fashion as a medium to share my message. I always say, “I’m not changing clothes, I’m changing lives.” I find that fashion is a powerful way to capture a woman’s attention. I had no idea the impact finding my voice would have on my healing. At the beginning, I was very weak and frail from the illness but I found that I got stronger and stronger each day. Finding my voice became the key to healing. Eventually, I stopped all the treatment and protocols and started living from a space of passion, purpose, joy, creativity and serving others…and I began healing rapidly. I was seeing a doctor who was a specialist in Lyme who told me she had never seen anyone so ill and she had no idea how to help me. I found that I had to help myself through personal empowerment. Today, there is no trace of the disease.

What made you decide to start the Forever Fierce Revolution group?

In February 2016, I launched a campaign called The Fierce 50 along with 3 fashion bloggers although the campaign wasn’t about fashion. The idea I had was to bring together 50 bloggers over the age of 50 on the 50th day of the year to celebrate one another and create a collaborative, supportive community for women over 50. The vision and mission was centered around a message to shift the perception of women at Midlife & Beyond and to show the world that we aren’t who you think we are. We only had a few weeks to plan the campaign and we ended up with 70 bloggers. Within a month, I launched a Facebook Community and soon after I changed the name to Forever Fierce. We had a huge demand from younger women who felt invisible. The Gen X generation was forgotten. The Forever Fierce Revolution is a global community for women at Midlife & Beyond. To us, Midlife isn’t an age but an experience when the world starts treating a woman differently or she starts seeing herself differently. We have women from 20 to 80 and from many countries around the world. We also have a few brave men who are known to support our demographic. FFR is a Movement, a Revolution to shift a paradigm and perception of women over 35. Our current culture tends to be very youth focused. We are here to show the world that we aren’t over the hill…we are conquering the hill! We have almost 6000 women and it’s grown solely by word of mouth. I have a fabulous team of about 15 women who volunteer their time to run the community and help with the mission of The Forever Fierce Revolution.

How would you describe the “Forever Fierce Revolution” group and what will we find there?

The Forever Fierce Revolution Group is intended to be unlike anything else a woman has experienced. We are changing the culture of the way women treat women. We believe in spreading kindness and uplifting one another. The team members share the same heart centered values. We had one member post in the group that she felt she had just woken up from a bad dream and landed in heaven on earth! It’s comments like those that keep us working around the clock on our mission. Women at Midlife & Beyond aren’t seen as relevant, productive and visible members of society. When they join the FFR Sisterhood, we make sure they know they are relevant and they are valued. We have many women literally springing back to life starting businesses, launching blogs and finding a new lease on life. I like to think of myself as a Cat-alyst. I have no desire to influence anyone. My greatest desire is to spark change from within a woman to allow her the space for her dreams to come true. We help her to believe in herself so she has the power to go for her dreams.

How large is this group now and how fast is it growing?

We have almost 6000 members and we are in the midst of planning a big event in LA in October that’s only for FFR members called FierceCon 2018: It’s Not a Conference, It’s a Connection. We will be celebrating love, relationships and sisterhood with the theme: Our Fiece Love Story Starts Now. Our team has worked together to launch 3 global social service campaigns over the last year and we have reached almost 10 million in following. We are spreading our message in many different ways. One of the campaigns was called Bridging the Gap and paired 100 Millennial Influencers with 100 Midlife Influencers to blur boundaries and end divisions amongst the generations. We are on a mission to grow to 10,000 members this year and our next goal is 100,000 members. We feel there is power in numbers. You may not notice 1 Midlife woman on a street corner but you can’t miss 100,000. The more women we have joining our mission and our movement, the faster this paradigm will change and we will be seen as relevant.

What do you enjoy most about being a part of this group?

Absolutely everything! When I entered the world of fashion blogging, it was hard to see the way older women were treated. We were so disconnected from one another and we didn’t have a voice or a unified presence. I created what I needed which was a true sisterhood and community. I’ve made some of my closest friends in my group. The women on the Admin team are some of the kindest and most giving women on the planet. The time they invest to change the world and ensure that we have a safe and sacred place to allow these women to open up and be their most vulnerable touches my heart every single day. The stories we hear from the women about their lives changing by believing in themselves and being truly loved, supported and accepted by other women is incredible.

Can you tell me what turning “40 years old” was like for you, what your mindset was like at that time, and what advice do you have for the rest of us who have that big birthday coming up?

40 was an interesting time in my life. I don’t like the term Midlife Crisis. I refer to it as a Midlife Awakening. When I turned 40, it was as though the Universe said…ok…you’re not going to pretend to hold it together any longer and that façade is going to come crumbling down…and it did. The wheels came off. I was a big runner for 20 years and my knees blew out. I was literally grounded and couldn’t run any longer. I began having really serious health challenges and my abusive marriage spiraled out of control. When I turned 45, I had a breakdown and my doctor looked at the stack of medical and hospital records and told me that if I didn’t leave my marriage, I wasn’t going to make it. Soon after, I filed for divorce. I thought the worst was over but it wasn’t only just beginning. Looking back, I’m grateful for what I’ve been through in my life, including almost losing my life to Lyme Disease. This time has truly been an awakening for me. I’ve been on a deeply spiritual path for over 25 years and have done a great deal of inner work with lots more ahead. I believe with all my heart that this beautiful Universe is designed to force us inwards to do the work we are meant to do. I’ve learned so much about myself through this process and that I’m a lot stronger than I ever knew. In the end, the only thing that matters in life are the lives we’ve touched along the way and leaving this world a better place. It’s a true “Heroine’s Journey,” the toughest and most rewarding journey is the one from within.

What is your mindset like now when it comes to approaching our “big birthdays”? 

Honestly, I don’t even think about it. I feel so young on the inside. I had such a different perspective on aging growing up. What I saw was so vastly different than what I’m experiencing today. Every year is a blessing. There are definitely some challenging parts of aging such as menopause and the hormonal fluctuations that come along with it that I don’t love but have to accept. The most important thing is the way that we feel. It’s so important to take care of your health so “big birthdays” can be enjoyed and celebrated rather than feared.

You look Stunning and Fit/Healthy in all of your photos!  I think we would all like to know what your diet is like, what you do to stay healthy/fit, and about any skincare secrets you can pass along to the rest of us.

It wasn’t long ago that I was under 100 lbs with daily seizures. I looked dramatically different than I do today. I’ve shared those photos openly as I feel it’s so important for women to understand that we all have challenges. My life has been a journey with some beautiful highs and some painful challenges and dark times. It’s such a mix of pain and beauty. I’ve been studying holistic healing and nutrition for over two decades. I’m an energy worker and a meditator. I use food as medicine and love Farmers Markets and natural remedies to disrupt aging. I have tried many different “diets” such as vegetarian or all raw and found that balance works best for me. I favor healthy, organic choices and grass fed chicken and and beef. I absolutely love fish. My diet is more paleo with lots of healthy fruits and greens. I start my day with a meal replacement shake that’s filled with live, raw enzymes. I add MCT oil to add some healthy fat and boost my metabolism. I also add an immune booster that’s loaded with a variety of mushrooms that help with energy. I’m a big believer in using probiotics and prebiotics. I always have raw sauerkraut in my fridge to boost healthy gut bacteria which is vital for health and well being. I use vast amounts of oils such as ghee and flaxseed oil as well. Avocados, eggs, salads, raw nuts are a big part of my nutritional plan. I also like to have fun and absolutely love dark chocolate. I work with a functional nutritionist to help me disrupt aging as naturally as possible. I’m very active physically. I start my days with meditation and yoga or the Bar Method. I do yoga for my inner world and flexibiity while Bar Method is an amazing isometric workout for toning. I just added in weight training which becomes really important for our bone health as we age. When it comes to beauty, I love trying new things. I don’t have any botox or filler in my skin. I’m definitely open to it and simply haven’t had the time. I’ve never used lasers before but would love to give them a try. I discovered a skincare system by a Korean company called “Saranghae” and it’s become the cornerstone of my skincare routine. I approached them as I had done a lot of research and tried many different lines but this one is my absolute favorite. It’s all natural and loaded with the finest ingredients including mushrooms and truffle extracts. I find that my skin has changed dramatically with menopause and this has made a huge difference by restoring moisture and radiance. I absolutely love their masks for an instant glow.

Part of my goal in starting my blog was to show the world that beauty exists in all of us regardless of our socio-economic status, ethnic background, or age.  What advice would you give to young women in their 20’s and 30’s who are afraid of aging?

I love this question as this was a big part of the mission behind The Bridging the Gap Campaign to take the fear out of aging. A lot of that fear comes due to a misperception and misunderstanding. Did you know the research shows us when someone has a fear of aging that it takes 7 years off of a woman’s life? Now, that’s crazy as that is completely in our control. What I would say is the most important thing in the world is to know yourself. Being mindful and conscious about who we are, the authentic desires in our hearts, and being real and vulnerable with ourselves and others. Letting go of our judgments, particularly the ones we have about ourselves and moving into Self Acceptance and Self Love is vital to our health and well being. Being mindful means being aware of our negative thoughts, particularly about ourselves. Every time we have a negative thought, there is a cascade of hormones sent throughout our body and that will do more damage to us than anything else. Our thoughts can feel out of our control but they are completely in our control. I’m not an enlightened being by any means and I have to work regularly on my mindset and thought process. Our culture can be very unkind to women as we age which only makes it that much more vital that we choose to be kind to ourselves. When we love ourselves, the world looks brighter.

If we are a woman in midlife and would like to join the Forever Fierce Revolution, where can we join?

We would love for you to join the kindest sisterhood on the planet. Click here to join the FB Group. We also have a fabulous newsletter where we feature women in our community and share our fierce secrets for health, well being, mindset, fashion, beauty and wanderlust. If you’re a member of the tribe, you can join us in LA this fall for FierceCon 2018!

Where can we find you?

Blog: CatherineGraceO.com

Forever Fierce Facebook Group:

Forever Fierce Show/Podcast:


IG: @catherinegraceo

Thank you for your words of wisdom on beauty and aging and for sharing your health, beauty, and fitness secrets with us.  The Forever Fierce Revolution is such a wonderful group of women who have a treasure trove of knowledge to share with the rest of us.  Every time I listen to your podcasts/ radio show, read a Forever Fierce Revolution blog or Facebook post, I learn something new and feel truly inspired to grow into my own wisdom and fierceness.  Thank you for sharing this community of fierce women in midlife and beyond who are "conquering the hill!".  You are an amazing and inspiring woman!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Interview with CEO Laura Hertz of Gifts For Good - Charitable Business Gifts that Support Social, Economic, and Environmental Causes

Interview with Joanna Joy from A Stylish Love Story with CEO Laura Hertz of Gifts For Good - Charitable Business Gifts that Support Social, Economic, and Environmental Causes

Hello! Today I would like to introduce you to CEO Laura Hertz of Gifts For Good, a corporate
gift giving company.  Recently, I attended a meeting at the General Assembly in Santa Monica,
California and heard Laura speak on a panel of women entrepreneurs whose primary focus is on
using their brands to give back to social causes. Listening to these women speak really inspired
me to reach out and do more through my blog as well. Hopefully, after reading Laura’s interview
today, you will feel inclined to give back through your future endeavors also.

So, here we go…

Hi Laura! Thank you for sharing your time with us today. When I heard your brand’s story I was
immediately intrigued because I haven’t heard of too many brands that give back in the way that
you do.

Can you please tell us about your background?

I am a proud alumna of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and the USC Marshall School
of Business; as well as the federal community service program AmeriCorps National Civilian
Community Corps — the domestic Peace Corps. I have worked on both sides of the business
sector – nonprofit and corporate – including within financial services at one of the “Big Four”
accounting firms, as well as with Fair Trade USA.

Interview with Joanna Joy from A Stylish Love Story with CEO Laura Hertz of Gifts For Good - Charitable Business Gifts that Support Social, Economic, and Environmental Causes

How did you become interested in building a corporate gift giving company with a focus on
giving back?

I learned about the struggles of nonprofits to raise funds when I deferred my college acceptance
to join AmeriCorps, rebuilding homes in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, helping wildfire
victims, feeding and clothing the hungry and homeless, and teaching high school geometry to
inner-city youth. Later, after graduating from UC Berkeley, I worked for Deloitte, and noticed
how much money companies spend on gifts for employees, clients, and leads — and how these
gifts are often low quality stress balls and meaningless, branded paperweights.that end up in a
junk drawer.

That is why I founded Gifts for Good after completing my Master’s in Social Entrepreneurship at
USC. We use product sales of corporate gifts to fund the social missions of nonprofits, and scale
up the social impact of cause-based enterprises.

Interview with Joanna Joy from A Stylish Love Story with CEO Laura Hertz of Gifts For Good - Charitable Business Gifts that Support Social, Economic, and Environmental Causes

Specifically at Gifts For Good, how are you making an impact using socially
responsible practices in your day-to-day operations?

At Gifts for Good, we are reinventing the $90 billion U.S. corporate gifting industry as the first
source for charitable business gifts that support a range of social, economic, and environmental
causes. As a B2B marketplace, we sell life-changing products made by over 40 nonprofits and
social enterprises to businesses purchasing employee and client gifts in bulk. Our platform helps
companies send more meaningful gifts, while providing the B2B marketing team these
cause-based organizations need to better sustain themselves and grow their reach and impact.

I see that “empathy” is listed as one of your core values at Gifts For Good. Can you tell me
more about how your company incorporates this core value?

Empathy is a powerful emotion, allowing us to understand other people, their position, and their
needs. If you want to make a difference in this world, you need to understand the communities
you will be working in and how your efforts will impact them.
At Gifts for Good, my team and I believe in people over profit. We seek to always look beyond
ourselves, putting the interests of those in need above our own. We believe that all impact, big or
small, stems from our ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes.

Interview with Joanna Joy from A Stylish Love Story with CEO Laura Hertz of Gifts For Good - Charitable Business Gifts that Support Social, Economic, and Environmental Causes

One of my favorite quotes from your Instagram is

“Your Greatness Is Not What You Have, It’s What You Give.” 

How many countries have you been able to impact through
corporate gift giving at Gifts For Good and what types of social causes have you
contributed to?

Every gift we sell supports one of our six main causes in 65 countries around the globe:

● children-in-need
● women-at-risk
● economic development
● environment
● homelessness
● health

In the last year, Gifts for Good has provided 1 year of clean drinking water to 1,023 people; 392
days of schooling to children in Honduras; 18,000 children with enough Vitamin A for 1 year; 50
days of job training for women transitioning from homelessness; 3,639 hours of employment in
Haiti to help fight the child slavery crisis; 1,469 meals to children in-need... and so much more!

Interview with Joanna Joy from A Stylish Love Story with CEO Laura Hertz of Gifts For Good - Charitable Business Gifts that Support Social, Economic, and Environmental Causes

What kinds of considerations do you make when choosing a product for Gifts For Good?

At Gifts for Good, we like to say that we are a “product first” company. We choose quality gifts
that people will love to give and receive, which also happen to have an incredible social impact.
Every product we sell must be beautiful, functional, and meaningful.

We follow a very stringent vetting process when it comes to the nonprofits and social enterprises
we work with. When a cause brand submits a proposal to work with us, they have to provide
detailed information on their impact strategy and metrics at the product level (i.e. every water
bottle sold provides 6 months of clean drinking water in the Central African Republic). We meet
them in person, ask for references and verify the information through third-party sites likes
Charity Navigator and other sources. If a cause brand meets our stringent standards for both the
cause and the product, we invite them into our community.

If I wanted to customize a gift for my brand, how would I do that?

You can easily customize a gift for your brand by uploading your logo directly through our
ecommerce store, giftsforgood.com . Companies and professionals looking for assistance in
finding the perfect branded gift can also utilize our free gifting concierge service by calling
(877)554-1550 or e-mailing us at hello@giftsforgood.com .

Our complementary gifting concierge service helps companies find the perfect branded gift for
their industry, company size, demographic, corporate social responsibility initiatives, recipient,
occasion and budget. We work closely with our clients to identify their top needs, and curate the
perfect gifts for them that speaks to the causes their company cares about most.

Interview with Joanna Joy from A Stylish Love Story with CEO Laura Hertz of Gifts For Good - Charitable Business Gifts that Support Social, Economic, and Environmental Causes

If a company would like to participate in collaborating with Gifts For Good, how should
they contact you?

We love collaborations! Just shoot us an email at hello@giftsforgood.com. 􀀀We ask nonprofits
and social enterprises who want to work with us to visit the Partner With Us page.

If we would like to purchase gifts individually that give back for birthdays and holidays,
instead of in bulk for corporate use, can we still do that?

Yes, of course! Over 50% of the products on our website are available for one-off purchases like
birthdays and holiday gifts for friends and family. :)

Interview with Joanna Joy from A Stylish Love Story with CEO Laura Hertz of Gifts For Good - Charitable Business Gifts that Support Social, Economic, and Environmental Causes

Where can we find you? 

Gift + give back by visiting giftsforgood.com or follow us on social media @giftsforgoodHQ. If
you like our Facebook page, a tree will be planted in your honor!
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/giftsforgoodhq/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/giftsforgoodhq
Twitter: https://twitter.com/GiftsForGoodhq
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/17947311/

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Animal Assisted Therapy with Melissa Winkle from Dogwood Therapy Services Inc.

Hello!  Today I have a very special interview on the blog with Melissa Winkle, the President of Animal Assisted Intervention International and the owner of Dogwood Therapy Services Inc.  There has been such a great focus on the importance of mental health lately, that I felt it would be best to cover this topic with an expert.  Also, is it just me or have you seen more people adopting pets lately?  There are so many benefits to pet ownership, so let us shine a light on how animal assisted therapy may help you.

Here we go…

Hi Melissa!  Thank you for sharing your time with us today.  It was exciting when I first heard of animal assisted therapy.  I am a huge animal lover! 

Hi! Thank you for having me! There are so many ways that human-animal interactions take place, I am looking forward to clearing the air about what animal assisted therapy is, and is not.

Tell us about yourself.

I graduated from the University of New Mexico Occupational Therapy (OT) Program and have been in practice for almost 20 years. Many people don’t know what OT is, and I must say it is one of the most awesome career choices anyone can make.

Occupational Therapy (OT) is a healthcare field that works with people with disabilities resulting from birth, injury, illness or aging. It is a holistic, person centered intervention process that focuses on strategies to improve a person’s ability to participate in any activity that is meaningful to them.  Individuals may have compromised musculoskeletal functioning, nervous system disorders, developmental disorders, sensory disorders, cognitive or perceptual disorders, mental disorders, systemic disorders or immunologic diseases which impair their ability to perform daily life activities.

Occupational Therapists use a knowledge base of neurology, anatomy, physiology, Kinesiology, [human] development, psychology, psychosocial development, task and biomechanical analysis and use a variety of therapeutic techniques to work with people of all ages.

First off, what is animal assisted therapy and how did you get interested in it?

I want to make clear that animal assisted therapy (AAT) is not a ‘think’ in and of itself. It is something that is used in conjunctions with someone’s licensed degreed work in healthcare and human services.  It is easiest to explain it in with some other things it is confused with.

Let’s start with a categorical term “Animal Assisted Interventions” or AAIs. This is an umbrella term that captures three areas in which dogs work with humans and have an effect on them in some way.

A goal-directed intervention is designed to promote improvement in physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive functioning of the person(s) involved and in which a specially trained animal-handler team is an integral part. AAI (Animal Assisted Intervention) is directed and/or delivered by a practitioner with specialized expertise and within the scope of practice of his/her profession. There are specific goals for individual involved and the process is documented and evaluated. The fields of Animal Assisted Education (AAE) and Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) cover these types of Animal Assisted Interventions. An intervention can also be less goal-directed, more casual or spontaneous. This type of intervention is designed to promote a range of other than therapeutic or educational benefits and to enhance the quality of life. The field of Animal Assisted Activities (AAA) covers this type of Animal Assisted Interventions. An Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) may be provided in a variety of settings, may be group or individual in nature and may be implemented for persons of any age.
Animal Assisted Activity
An AAA intervention is less goal-directed as specific objectives may not be planned. AAA (Animal Assisted Activity) is provided in a variety of settings, may be group or individual in nature and may be implemented for persons of any age. The AAA practitioners and/or animal handlers all are specially trained by an organization and meet the minimum standards set forth by AAII. Teams who provide AAA may also participate in Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) or Animal Assisted Education (AAE) when the team is working directly with a healthcare, human service provider or with an educational practitioner.
Animal Assisted Education
An AAE intervention is formally goal-directed and designed to promote improvement in cognitive functioning of the person(s) involved and in which a specially trained animal-handler team is an integral part of the educational process. AAE (Animal Assisted Education) is directed and/or delivered by a licensed/degreed (or equivalent) professional with education, and specialized expertise within the scope of practice of his/her profession. AAE may be provided in a variety of settings, may be group or individual in nature and may be implemented for persons of any age. There are specific goals for individual involved and the process is documented and evaluated.
Animal Assisted Therapy
An AAT intervention is formally goal-directed and designed to promote improvement in physical, social, emotional and/or cognitive functioning of the person(s) involved and in which a specially trained animal-¬handler team is an integral part of the treatment process. AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy) is directed and/or delivered by a licensed/degreed (or equivalent) healthcare/human service professional with education and specialized expertise and within the scope of practice of his/her profession. AAT may be provided in a variety of settings, may be group or individual in nature and may be implemented for persons of any age. There are specific goals for individual involved and the process is documented and evaluated.
** Many people use the term ‘therapy dog’ and I recommend not using that term at all. About 50 years ago, volunteer humans and their pets began visiting people in hospital and other community settings who may either be ill, not have access to their own pets, etc.  People noticed how much better people felt when dogs were around, and believed that dogs may have some sort of therapeutic effect even though these dogs were not part of formal goal directed treatment. The volunteer teams began to be called therapy dog teams. Volunteer visiting is very different than a way a dog actually becomes part of a gal directed formal treatment plan. But the volunteer teams were doing this long before the therapists were. So, it is funny that the volunteer dogs kept this term of ‘therapy dog’. So, just try to use the actual terms for what a team has been formally trained for.
Here is a picture to make things clearer.

Many people also confuse animal assisted therapy with service dogs. They are not at all the same thing.

There is another categorical term called ASSISTANCE DOG.

Assistance dogs are trained and placed forever with a person with a disability. There are three kinds of assistance dogs.

1.       Guide dog for people who are blind or who have visual impairments. They guide people around obstacles, find empty seats on buses, etc.
2.       Hearing dogs who work for people who are hard of hearing or deaf. They alert to the source of sounds.
3.       Service dogs are dogs who are trained to work with people with disabilities other than sight and hearing. A service dog can do different kinds of work including working with people with disabilities such as:
a.       Physical disabilities. Perhaps someone uses a wheel chair and is not able to stand or walk. Let’s say that they also have difficulty holding onto items, and they drop things all the time. The dog might retrieve dropped items since the person can’t reach them. It may be able to open doors and another helpful tasks.
b.      Psychiatric disabilities- the dog may BE TRAINED to perform specific tasks for someone with PTS for example. They may rouse a veteran who is stuck in a 1000 yard stare, or provide more personal boundary space so the person is not crowded. These dogs may not provide any sort of protection. The task must be trained and directly related to a persons disability.
c.       Medical Alert or Response- individuals with diabetes or seizures are at risk for further injuries or death due to outcomes of their diagnosis. Some dogs may warn of a pending seizure or low blood sugar, they may bark or go find assistance or simply let the human know to get to a safe spot for the event or to take medications.

Below is another picture of how these are broken down.

These have been examples of ASSISTANCE DOGS that have nothing to do with animal assisted therapy. The terminology is important.

We will be focusing on ANIMAL ASSISTED THERAPY, nothing to do with assistance dogs, therapy dogs, animal assisted activities or animal assisted education. Only animal assisted therapy.

How does animal assisted therapy benefit people with mental health issues and what is your favorite part about working in the field?

It is important that people understand that therapists must have a lot of training or continuing education in animal assisted therapy. It is not something learnt in most university programs. Therapists can lose their license for practicing something they are not competent in. In addition, it takes a lot of socialization and training for animals to work in formal practice. The team should also have been evaluated by an objective 3rd party for this kind of work.
Therapists can work with people on physical, cognitive or psychiatric disabilities.  They typically evaluate people and identify physical, cognitive or psychiatric/psychosocial goals. If a dog can be incorporated into their treatment plan (if the client is appropriate to participate and the work is within their scope of the dogs training).

You asked about mental health.
In a counseling session, the dog may act as a social lubricant. Let’s suppose that the patient has difficulty talking to and trusting other people. The chances are good, if they like dogs, that they will engage with the dog. Even just the dog being present with the therapist gives that new patient a lot of information. They think “Well, the dog trusts the therapist, so maybe I can too.” Other times, it may help to speak to the dog rather than having to stare at the therapist or find some other target. They may benefit from the tactile input from petting a dog.

In an occupational therapy session, a veteran may come in for services related to PTSD. Let’s say that he also has some ambulation (walking issues), and he has lost a lot of social skills because he does not get out much. He has lost interest in activities he used to love, he has also gained a lot of weight which makes ambulation even more painful.  As his OT, I would include a dog by having him do some agility in our yard with my dogs. We would make modifications so his pain is decreased and so he can conserve energy while gaining muscle mass. After a few sessions he may realize that he really enjoys agility and be willing to go into public to do a class with his own dog. That helps him get back into the community and provides him with ample opportunities to engage with people with similar interests. He is also getting exercise which will decrease weight, build muscle, feel better and continue getting out. Because I am also an assistance dog trainer, I may work with him to have a SERVICE dog – this is a dog we train to assist him and that he keeps forever. Either way, he gains confidence and self esteem.

How long is the training for a therapy dog and what is that like?

We don’t use the term therapy dog since that means a volunteer visiting dog. But a dog that works in animal assisted therapy typically takes a year or a year and a half. Dogs need to achieve their developmental milestones, get through fear periods, gain social skills, have self-control and learn some cues and tasks they can participate in. Everyone has some different ideas of what they would like a dog to do in their practice. As a dog trainer and human healthcare practitioner, my dogs have a lot of training. To train, we PLAY and have FUN. I don’t boss my dogs around, we have relationships and a lot of respect for each other’s skills, health, welfare and well-being.

I clicker train my dogs, use a lot of positive reinforcement and humane training techniques. We do not do any fear based training, no physical force, no harsh yelling, no coercive methods, no shock or prong collars…….. in fact, we have an open dog door policy…dogs can walk out of a session any time they want to. If I am doing AAT correctly, they have so much fun that they do not want to leave. We reward dogs for behavior we want and reshape the behaviors we do not want into something else. So if a dog paws at people a lot, I might decide to teach that dog to press buttons or operate switches in games. If a dog loves to use its mouth to pick up things, I might teach it to play Kerplunk by pulling out straws from the tower of  that game alongside a kid to work on fine motor skills and turn taking. I have one dog who knows how to operate Hungry Hungry Hippo game.
I believe that dogs can continue learning new things their entire lives, so we do that! But to prepare a dog for this kind of work is a year to year and a half minimum. Assuming they pass testing at that point. Some dogs don’t.

What kind of educational background do you have to have to be an animal assisted therapy trainer?

I am a licensed and degreed occupational therapist, and a fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association.  After 18 years of training dogs, I decided to sit for an exam to gain my title of Certified Professional Dog Trainer- Knowledge Assessed. So it looks like this: Melissa winkle, OTR/L, FAOTA, CPDT-KA.  Therapists do not need to be certified trainers to do AAT and to train their dogs, but they do need to work with a trainer who understands the job. Obedience is one of the last things we actually train. It is more about relationship development with the therapist and then with patients/clients. There is a trust that needs to be there, a safe space for both dog and patient/client…which is facilitated by the therapist. Dogs need manners but not all dogs need to learn to play a musical instrument or do agility. Therapists have different styles of practicing, and the skills the dog needs should match that. I train a lot of therapists and their dogs…and we create a job description for the dog, then we create profiles of the human and a profile of the dog so we can assess where they each need to gain skills. A really great therapist may have terrible dg handling and communication skills… so it doesn’t work out to have the dog in practice. The dog may have great skills but if the therapist cannot multi task or advocate for client and dog equally, it can be a disaster.

If someone is interested in an internship with Dogwood Therapy, what are the requirements and what do they need to do to apply?
We have a lot of information on our website. But there are different methods.

1.       University students of healthcare/human services or dog trainers in formal programs who need internships can send a letter of interest, go through an interview and may be selected. They must be able to come for a minimum of 6 months, but 12 is recommended. Dogwood is very competitive – there are typically a dozen people applying for any one slot.
2.       I offer a big workshop 3-10 days over Memorial Day Weekend in my own clinic in Albuquerque. Three days of seminar and hands on, and then a week or two of hands on in our summer programs which are all about AAT with kids and teens with and without disabilities.
3.       I teach workshops around the world. Organizations sponsor me to come and give 3-14 day workshops or consults to teach skills and help design and open AAT programs. Sometimes they open them up to the public.
4.       People who are already in their career may want to learn AAT and we offer Post Professional Rotations. This is where people come to the clinic for 2 weeks – 12 months and learn dog behavior, communication, welfare, well-being, training, AAT theory, practice, treatment planning, evaluation of patients, and a lot of other things. IT depends on their profile.

What books have you written and where can we order them?

I have written chapters in several AAT books. The most recent is Aubrey Fine’s book, which is considered the AAT “bible” and it is available on Amazon:

I have a series of my own books called Professional Applications of Animal Assisted Interventions also available on Amazon:

I have two more coming out winter or spring.  There are also dozens of articles and research that I had the opportunity to participate in.

Lastly, what words of wisdom do you have to share with someone who is thinking about going into the field of animal assisted therapy and also for those who are considering getting a dog to work in AAT?

Get continuing education. It is so much more than taking your nice dog to work. It is a specialty area that requires specialty training for human and dog. There are many therapists who want to do AAT but do not have the skills, there are many dogs who are lovely pets but would not be happy doing the work, make sure you and dog are a good match. Ensure that you seek out education and mentorship until you gain competency in this area. There is no checklist of what one needs to do, as every clinic is different.  Be aware of risk assessments for this kind of program, liability, zoonotic risk factors, dog cognition and communication. Also know that there are standards of practice- one place to look is Animal Assisted Intervention International (AAII).  Aai-int.org

Know that there are also competencies that describe areas of study from Dr. Leslie Stewart which have also been adapted and adopted by AAII.  Know that the research is rather weak in AAT, because it is not easy to do for a variety of reasons.  And know that you will seek out continuing education the rest of your career for AAT. We learn new things all the time from a lot of disciplines.

Where can we find you? 

Facebook Dogwood Therapy Services: https://www.facebook.com/dogwoodtherapyservicesinc/
Facebook Animal Assisted Intervention International: https://www.facebook.com/aaii.org/

Thank you Melissa!  We appreciate your time and work as a therapist helping to heal the world through animal assisted therapy.

Thank you for the opportunity!