A day in the life: Michelle and Ruby

For RCH Art Therapist Michelle Atlas and her dog Ruby, no two days at the hospital are the same.

Here Michelle shares a glimpse at how they help children and families cope with the trauma of sexual assault.

From the moment we walk into the hospital, we greet people passing by. Ruby is often stopped by children and parents asking to pat her. Most kids seem to know they need to ask first and it’s always heart-warming seeing their excitement and joy in meeting Ruby. Sometimes they’ll talk about their own pets, others times they’ll talk about how they really, really want a dog.

Ruby is also greeted with smiles from staff. Some know her well now and comment on her new haircut. Others wait for Ruby to settle in and then come by to say good morning. Greetings from staff often include excited comments about how they woke up and remembered it was Wednesday and therefore a “Ruby day”.

Once we make it to my desk, Ruby has a morning snack and drink of water before settling on her bed while I prepare for the day. As staff walk past they pop into the pod to greet Ruby and give her a pat. Then it’s time to prepare for our clients, as we have a number of sessions in the day.

Having Ruby in therapy sessions is a very different experience for clients. Some are surprised to be greeted by a dog, others are prepared and excited to meet her.

Recently Ruby and I had a session with some parents before I began working with their son. As the mum spoke about her distress, Ruby came up to her. The mum leaned down and picked Ruby up and held her until the end of the session. On preparing to say goodbye, the mum commented that she was tired from holding Ruby for so long. Her husband responded by querying, “who was holding who?” and we all paused in the room. He was spot on with his question because, while the mum was physically holding Ruby, Ruby was psychologically holding her. Ruby gave her the strength to share her story and sadness about what had happened to her son.

In between sessions, I take Ruby out for breaks in the park and at lunch time Ruby goes for a jog with one of my Gatehouse colleagues, Marion. It’s important for Ruby to have a balanced day with breaks and time for rest. Between sessions I type up my notes so Ruby gets time to nap and rest.

In another session, Ruby and I work with a 10 year old boy who was being cared for by a grandparent due to abuse experienced by his parents. He had found it very hard not to see his mother anymore, though she had hurt him, and struggled with loving her and missing her presence. He could never talk about it before Ruby joined the sessions. As he began to draw at the table, he turned to Ruby and asked, “Ruby do you miss your mum and dad?” While he wasn’t able to tell me about his sadness, he was able to identify with Ruby and use her as a way to project his feelings of sadness and loss, feeling safe to express them.

Many times in session Ruby has helped children understand boundaries and safety.

This is so important with children who have been sexually abused, as sometimes they don’t know what’s ok and not ok touching. I will talk with children about greeting Ruby and where it is ok and not ok to touch her body. This has allowed safe opportunities for children to learn about boundaries around touching private parts and discuss their own experiences of boundary violation, as well as the feelings associated with it.

Ruby is also very good at providing immediate feedback when she doesn’t like something. This has been useful when children have experienced trauma and find it difficult to trust others or make friends. Often this results in poor social skills and struggles with building friendships. In one session a seven year old girl came close up to Ruby. She was enjoying patting Ruby, but then wasn’t sure how to continue playing with her. In response the girl put her finger near Ruby’s face and Ruby immediately moved her head away. I used this opportunity to point out how something happened that Ruby didn’t like. In exploring the scenario it became clear that the girl wanted to be friends with Ruby, but didn’t know how. In proceeding weeks the girl continued to learn to observe Ruby’s responses to her behaviour, which helped the girl begin to read social cues and find appropriate ways of connecting with others.

By the end of the day, Ruby and I are tired. As I begin to pack up, Ruby knows it’s nearly home time, watching and waiting until I get my jacket and bag. While Ruby is happy greeting everyone in the morning, in the afternoon she’s eagerly awaiting the walk out of the hospital and through the park. Ruby sniffs and explores as we head home. Once home, Ruby has an afternoon snack, gets into her basket, plays with her toys, eats bones, and rests like all dogs should.

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