TTouch: Reaching animals through touch

2010-10-19 00:00

RESPECT is a word that appears often in conversations with Doreen Stapelberg. What may give pause for thought is that she’s referring to working with animals. For Stapelberg, a Pietermaritzburg dog breeder and trainer, a kinder, gentler way of relating to other creatures makes sense and is also a mark of progress.

Stapelberg is one of only four people in Africa who is qualified to practise at a higher level the TTouch method of therapy developed by American animal expert Linda Tellington­-Jones (see box). She describes TTouch as “a specific way of moving the skin; it’s non-habitual touch which gives the body a different sensation and opens up new neural pathways. It helps the body release tensions, trauma and pain’’.

While she has been training dogs for decades, Stapelberg only encountered this method in 2000, joining the first batch of South Africans at a training course run by Tellington-Jones in Johannesburg the following year.

A no-nonsense woman in khaki shorts, she admits she took some convincing at first. “I was very sceptical. You see someone doing little innocuous movements on an animal’s body and it’s supposed to do something.’’ But success in changing problem behaviour in her own cat got her thinking that there might be something to it.

Stapelberg uses TTouch to work with companion animals that are traumatised or stressed, have behavioural problems like aggression, fear of thunderstorms or excessive barking, or which are injured or suffering from health conditions such as arthritis­.

Body work consists of using a variety­ of touches and lifts — there are about 25 — which can be easily taught to clients, so that they can continue the treatment.

“Some animals can’t be touched at first. I touch the owner instead. Then I touch in a very non-threatening way, for example with the back of my hand. Gradually I work into the area of tension.

“The other part of my work is groundwork. If you have a very fearful animal and you lead it through obstacles it learns to become more aware of its body.

“This awareness brings about balance (in the physical sphere). If you can influence one kind of balance it will help bring about balance in other areas such as mental and emotional balance.’’

Stapelberg has worked on a range of animals including a camel, an iguana­ and an emu. Unsurprisingly for a method that evolved out of work done on humans (see box),

TTouch works on people too and she says that she has helped people who suffer from migraines, an arrhythmic heart and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Animals, however, are her main focus.

‘’I always wanted to be a vet, but circumstances didn’t allow it. In TTouch I found what I wanted to do with animals. It’s very respectful. I’ve always had animals, but I’ve only really­ learnt to understand and communicate with them since doing TTouch.’’

Stapelberg describes the method as a philosophy of being with animals and learning what they can teach us. To this she brings her extensive knowledge of dog behaviour.

“Animals are so responsive to this kind of work. It’s all based on understanding how an animal thinks and how they are.”

So are we learning to be a kinder species in our interactions with other animals? She thinks so. “People are starting to realise that they [animals] have the same emotions as we do. When you watch them closely it’s amazing what you see. And communication is so much better than domination.

“I’m thrilled that the harsh methods­ [of training animals] are dying out. We’re learning to respect animals. They are our teachers.’’

• Click here for a video of Doreen Stapelberg 

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