Jennifer Freyensee recently welcomed an unusual partner to her Rapid City counseling practice.

Six-month-old Dusty may be partial to chewing on bones and rolling around on the floor, but Freyensee has high hopes for her four-legged associate.

“I’ve always thought animals could make connections when people can’t,” said Freyensee, a local mental health therapist who works with children and families.

The Rapid City woman opened Paws for Therapy this summer. She previously practiced at Youth & Family Services Counseling Center before deciding to branch out on her own and offer canine therapy.

“I thought this could be my calling card, something new I could bring to Rapid City,” she said.

Counselors and therapists use animals to connect with patients in ways that might otherwise be inaccessible. Dogs such as Dusty help socialize, calm and motivate individuals with various conditions, problems and disorders.

At first glance, the caramel- and parchment-colored pup may appear a little peculiar. When Freyensee began her online search for Labradoodle breeders, her husband teased that the breed reminded him of Sasquatch.

“He is a little funny-looking,” she said.

But Freyensee found the breed’s laid-back temperament and playfulness appealing. She eventually located a breeder in Canada and brought Dusty home in July.

His personality quickly won over both Jennifer and Jim Freyensee.

The personable pooch elicits a unique response from the adults and children who frequent Freyensee’s downtown Rapid City office.

“It’s always interesting to see how they interact,” she said.

Some visitors are more reserved around Dusty. He’ll oblige their seeming disinterest by just wandering around the office or sitting in a corner and contentedly gnawing on a bone.

“He senses who people are,” Freyensee said. “He can tell them apart.”

Others — youngsters in particular — aren’t shy about getting acquainted. They enjoy giving the Labradoodle simple commands and rewarding him with a treat.

“They really get attached to him,” Freyensee said.

And they would probably take him home if they could. One such visitor informed Freyensee that she wanted to “buy” Dusty during a recent play-therapy session. She was “shopping,” and Dusty was on her shopping list.

“She wanted to buy this dog, and he went right along with it,” she said. “He became a part of her play.”

Freyensee specializes in play therapy, a therapeutic technique that helps children better communicate their feelings and experiences.

“Toys are their words, and play is their language,” she said.

In a clinical setting, animals such as Dusty serve as a toy of sorts.

Freyensee emphasizes Dusty is merely an option. If parents and adults prefer he not participate in their or their child’s session, Freyensee leaves him at home.

“He is just one option for people who have been traumatized or have behavioral problems,” she said.

Those who do work with Dusty exhibit improved behaviors.  Confidence is one of those positive changes.

When Dusty was just a pup, he didn’t like climbing stairs, so Freyensee had to carry him. One of her clients offered to change that. Using treats as an incentive, she helped Dusty overcome his hesitation.

“It built her self-esteem,” Freyensee said. “When the kids do some of the training, it really builds their self-esteem.”

Like the children and adults he helps, Dusty isn’t done learning.

A local dog trainer works weekly with the Labradoodle so he can be certified by the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen program.

The program stresses responsible pet ownership for owners and basic good manners for dogs.

After he’s credentialed through the Canine Good Citizen program, Dusty will work toward therapy certifications through the Delta Society.

The nonprofit society aids health care, educational and professionals in learning to safely and effectively incorporate therapy animals into their practices.

“Dusty is still very much a puppy, and we still have a lot of training to do, but he is irresistible,” Freyensee said.

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