Hau-hau, there! Who are you?

Hi! My name is Saana Hakola. Hmmm, do you want to know about my education, or..?

Yes, let’s start with that.

I have a Master’s Degree in social services and social rehabilitation, from Laurea University of Applied Sciences. I’m also an animal-assisted therapist, and in a week or two I’ll be graduating as a neuro-psychiatric coach. Both programs are from Alfa Partners Academy; they have a lot of options in education for those who work in social and welfare services.

What is the service you provide?

It’s a small business that I run myself, with my two dogs, called “animal-assisted rehabilitation”.

Is it like a form of therapy?

No, because I don’t have education as a therapist. My education is for social rehabilitation and social services. For example, psychotherapy functions under the Healthcare services, whereas my business operates within the Social Services sector.

Traditionally, Finns were supposed to “suck it up and be strong,” which made mental health a sensitive topic not long ago—it used to be very difficult to get therapy, for example. Have things changed, you think?

I think it’s started to become more normal. Famous people talk publicly about mental health, the kind of struggles they’ve gone through, things like that. So it’s becoming more socially acceptable to tell your friends “yeah last week I went to my therapy, and after that I went swimming with my family…” It’s not like “GASP! What? Are you like, crazy or something?!”

What is “social rehabilitation”?

It depends a lot on the person, but the focus is on the social welfare of people, and the community they live in. If you’re out of the job market, have no education, are chronically ill, are an elderly person with no-one to interact with, then you’re excluded from the main population and that’s considered unhealthy in many ways. Social rehabilitation is also part of a Finnish law that’s called Sosiaalihuoltolaki (“law of social welfare”) and encompasses all kinds of social welfare and services.

Do you specialize in any specific group?

At the Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees there were common studies and then you could specialize in a group (elderly, children, disabled, immigrants). My speciality is people over fifteen and upwards (children require other skills) so pretty much anybody can contact me. For someone severely disabled this service may not be the best, but it’s still possible to do many things with the dogs. With most of my clients we work on mental health rehabilitation.

Makes me think of “primitive culture” shamans, whose role was not to treat the ails of an isolated individual, but to consider his interdependence with the community as a whole.

Social rehabilitation seeks to help people function better within their community, so… maybe I’m a modern shaman! (laughs)

What were you doing after you graduated?

I worked in adult social services for the city of Espoo and Helsinki, for seven years or so. Then I was a social counselor in a detox clinic in Espoo, where clients came to the ward and we helped them detox from alcohol and/or drugs. There were nurses, practical nurses, a doctor, and a social worker. Of course a social worker’s point of view is different from a doctor’s, so I think it is good to have different kinds of professionals considering all possible aspects of the client’s life, so we could help them best. Then I worked in shelters for the homeless in Espoo and Helsinki, and in safe houses for victims of domestic violence. I did a lot of different type of work when I was studying, short-term jobs, one day here, one day there.

Why choose such a grim environment and profession, if I may?

I like to help people. I think I’m good at understanding what others are going through—sometimes I don’t but that’s okay, at least I try! I want to understand why they’re thinking what they’re thinking, what was it that led them to their current state. People get satisfaction and pleasure from different things; I get joy from helping others. I think it’s nice that I can do something meaningful with my life, not just toil to pay the rent.

Any darkness in your past?

I guess we all have some darkness somewhere. But I have a great family; my brother lives close and my parents in the north of Finland. But it’s true that I’m interested in people who have dealt with difficult things and even a lot of suffering.

How was the transition into entrepreneurship?

Well, in almost every other job I did before there was always some issue, problem, or interference coming from above, you know, from a higher level. I got tired of that, I wanted a job that I could do as well as I could and as well as I wanted to, without any limitations. I just didn’t know what that could be! (laughs) Until one morning I was watching TV and in the studio they had… a therapy alpaca! The story was about the gentle animal visiting senior citizens’ homes to comfort them. And I was like “this is SO interesting!” So I did some research, found the program for becoming an animal-assisted therapist, and signed in right away. I didn’t have to think about it much, I trust my intuition in some things, and this was one of them. Then I thought “okay, I have the education and I have a dog, what do I do next?” I couldn’t use it in my current job, so I had to figure out something else. At first I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. It was intimidating to me at the time because I’d never done it before and didn’t know anything about it. But in the end I took that road anyway, and now I couldn’t be happier!

Can you describe what the process is like? Do you have an office?

I do home visits only, I don’t have an office. That’s because for many of my clients it’s very difficult to get out of their homes, or to plan getting somewhere in time, for example. So I save their energy and my time by just going to their places, which simplifies things in many ways. First off, it feels safer to be in their own home. And then, if they have practical problems in their environment (organizing, cleaning, cooking, and so on) we can start working directly on it.

So me and my dog arrive and usually sit on the floor in the living room, because it’s easier for the dog to come really close (and some people don’t want animals climbing onto their sofa). And we mostly talk, but we can also do things. For example, a client had a habit of misplacing the keys, the cell-phone, and other stuff. So we created a routine: “when you arrive in the house you place your keys HERE, then your phone HERE”. Being right there in the home, we could practice it as much as we wanted. We can also go out for a walk, play with the dog… Ultimately the client decides what they want to do and accomplish with our help.

My approach is solution-focused. We don’t focus on the past, or go through traumatizing events in detail (I don’t even feel I have the right to start digging into someone’s head). We do talk about difficult things, but our goal is to learn from experiences. How did you survive, what are your skills? I help them see that they have a lot of strength and great abilities within them, that they might not see by themselves.

(I want to hug her at this point, but we are quarantined—damn you, Covid19!)

That’s my approach. Discussions are always different with every client, and I always try to find the positive angle in every situation. If they can’t see anything good about something, I try to help them change their perspective and see things in a way that will help them heal.

Shall we talk about the dogs? What are their names and breeds?

Hilma is six and a half years-old now, she’s a Bernese Mountain dog mixed with German Shepard. She’s been working with me for over a year. My other dog is called Mauno, and he’s a Newfoundland dog, over a year old. He’s a 63 kg puppy lapdog, quite the character. (laughs) He’s funny and gentle, and you need to have a sense of humor with him. Hilma is more… dignified and classy. Clients can suggest which dog they’d like to work with, but then I have to think about it myself because in the end I’m responsible for the dogs, and I know what works best.

So you always take only one dog.

Oh, yes. It would be chaos otherwise! (laughs) Because they get a bit jealous of each other and start playing and messing around. And since Mauno is so huge, he could potentially break something. So I take only one.

What do you feel during the experience?

I feel I’m in control, or responsible for the situation, because I’m the professional. But it’s not like I know everything. The clients are the professionals or experts of their own life. I try to ask questions so they can figure out stuff for themselves. And I’m also observing the dog all the time.

The whole experience for me usually feels quite relaxing, cheerful, and sometimes funny. There’s a lot of laughter, because the dog may randomly do something silly, or cute. The clients really wait eagerly for us to come, and if it was me alone I don’t think it would be so! (laughs) Looking forward to meet the dog seems to really motivate them to work on their rehabilitation process.

What does the dog do?

As we sit on the floor, the dog is usually laying next to the client. I don’t know why the dog does it, I haven’t taught her to do that in any way. But right from the start she somehow knew what she was supposed to “do”. She just sat next to the client and placed her head in her lap, helping the client to relax. The whole atmosphere feels relaxed and safe because of the dog’s presence. I don’t think I could create such a nice and gentle atmosphere all by myself.

Does she ever react in a negative way?

No. The dog is free, she’s not on a leash and I don’t tell her what to do, ever. She goes where she pleases and usually wants to be close to us, wants us to pet her. Sometimes she wants to take a nap, so she lays down a little farther away, which also has a calming and peaceful effect. But she’s always alert.

Something else the dog helps me with is to reflect on the client’s feelings, needs, and boundaries. For example, if the dog is really tired, she will take a nap; she doesn’t push herself over her limit. If she’s hungry, she seeks food. She’s not trying to suppress her needs and feelings, and she expresses herself openly. We can really learn a lot from animals, they’re great for this type of work.

Is the success or failure of an intervention due to the dog’s character, would you say? Would it be altogether different with another dog?

I think the dog’s personality affects the process a lot, that’s why it must have a good character: to be really gentle, affectionate, happy and social. A dog that’s not comfortable around strangers, or is aggressive, can’t be used for this.

Are there kennels that shape dogs towards professions like this?

Not that I know of. I think certain breeds would suit better than others, but again, every dog is an individual. A breed that’s not considered sociable may produce an individual that’s super-sociable. The upbringing of dogs also counts a lot, how you socialize them, how you react to them, what do you want to teach them. I got Mauno with this work in mind, but I was aware that it may not work out, so then I would just have him for a normal dog. But it turns out he’s great. He’s been practicing a lot, we’ve been visiting different people and environments. I’m glad he has a very good character, because you never know what you’re going to get when you get a dog. He could hate everybody except me. Or me too! (laughs)

Does the experience ever get emotional?

Hmmm… It depends on how people express emotions. Sometimes I can feel, sometimes I can see, sometimes I don’t feel or see anything happening in our client. But sometimes I may catch a little gesture that lets me know they’re feeling something nice in their inner world. For my thesis a year ago I did an interview at the end of the rehabilitation process, asking lots of questions. My clients told me that the dog’s presence in the rehabilitation was really moving, lovely, and touching. For example, if you haven’t had any physical contact with anyone in years, the physical and emotional connection with the dog can be very powerful. It accepts you for who you are, without any sort of judgement, and the close proximity is neutral and safe, too.

Do the dogs get paid? Do they have a retirement plan?

(laughs) Both of my dogs are really social, they love everybody, and they’re always excited when I take them with me to visit friends or clients. They get instant reward when the client and I cuddle and pet them during the home visit. I also let them rest afterwards and take them to the woods to sniff and run around, which relaxes them really well.

I’m very mindful not to overwork them and make sure that they get more free time than work-time in a week. Maybe two appointments per day, two or three days per week and then the rest of the time they live just normal doggy life. I actually don’t even think they see it as a job. I think they’re like “YAY, we’re gonna visit nice people again!”

That’s what YOU think. Maybe they think “I can haz vacation, hooman?”

(laughs) Could be, because I suspect they end up doing most of the work. Even though it doesn’t look like they do anything in particular during the home visits—it’s not a circus where the dog does pirouettes. Instead she is working to build an emotional connection with the client, and that’s where the magic and healing happens. Then there’s the physical aspect of the dog: that you can hug it and kiss it and pet it, and that it can come really near to comfort you. This aspect is missing in traditional therapy—it’s not appropriate to hug the therapist—but the effects are undeniably powerful and effective.

What if people are allergic to animals?

I think allergic people probably don’t want an anaphylactic shock once a week! (laughs) We don’t compromise people’s health, so people who are allergic to dogs might want to take the more traditional approach to rehabilitation and work with a human counselor.

Anybody asks for cats instead of dogs?

No. I do have two cats, but my cats are not suitable for this, because they’re place-oriented, they don’t like to travel and visit other places. Whereas dogs are people-oriented and can travel and be comfortable almost anywhere. However, I do know some cats that visit elderly people.

How many clients have you seen so far, with this service?

Since the process can take a long time, my clients don’t change that often. I started working full-time with my business at the beginning of 2020, and prior to that, part-time. I’ve had 12 clients in one year. Last spring I did my thesis about the dog’s role in a rehabilitation process, so I count the clients that participated in that process as well.

How do clients find you?

Through social media (Facebook, Instagram) and by recommendation.

I imagine there’s a limit to the amount of clients you can see.

Yeah, that’s why it’s tricky for me to figure out how to advertise. For example, there are requests for tender (when the city is interested in buying specific services and companies bid) but how could I participate? I can’t provide the city with the quantity of service they want. Imagine having lots of people asking me everyday, and me having to say “no-no-no” or having a long waiting list! I wouldn’t want that. I would like my service to be swift, that I respond quickly, and I help people quickly. And then of course every client is different, their needs are different, they may not need such a long period of rehabilitation, so it’s difficult to estimate. I think I could handle fifteen appointments per week.

Expand! More dogs, more therapists! But then you’ll end up doing management instead of dog-assisted therapy…

Exactly! And I don’t even want to think about hiring people, because I don’t want to deal with bureaucracy and administrative work.

Are you at least covering your costs so far?

I’m getting there, but not quite yet. My goal is to have enough clients that I can support myself and my animals and I believe I will get there soon. This service is not something you do just for fun, you must have a serious reason to need it, so I feel I can’t advertise this in a “normal” way. What I’ve been doing is posting content about the dogs, funny things they do, stuff like that, and at the end I mention that “I have an animal-assisted rehabilitation service, if you’re interested contact me”. That’s the approach I consider acceptable and ethical for now.

What’s next for you in five, ten years?

I don’t think about my life like that. I would like to be doing this and also teach, or consult. This is so fulfilling for me that I don’t see the need to expand too much in the future.

It’s okay to expand as much as we need.

Yeah. What I’d like to see is social and healthcare services adopting more of the “Green Care” approach. Things like animal-assisted therapy, forest therapy, gardening, or therapeutic horse-riding. I think they are softer, gentler forms of therapy and rehabilitation and may suit a lot of people. Many positive studies support these methods; it just needs curious and courageous decision-makers to try and see for themselves. I’m not saying it should be mandatory for everybody, but a possible option for the clients to choose from.

You can follow Saana, Hilma, and Maunu’s work on Instagram and Facebook, and this is their website.