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Francois Labelle with a couple of miniature donkeys at his Heart and Soul Stables in near Carman, Man., southwest of Winnipeg. The registered miniature Mediterranean donkeys are used for show, pets, breeding, performance and therapy.

Heart and Soul Stables

If you step into the office of registered psychologist Kali Eddy, you won’t be greeted by a receptionist. Instead, a beige and brown spotted miniature donkey named Jimmy Cookie Dough will be one of the first faces you’ll see - and he’s a valuable tool in Ms. Eddy’s work with young people.

Two years ago, Ms. Eddy started Wild Blue Psychology Services near Lumsden, Sask. She uses a variety of animals, including Jimmy, her miniature donkey, as part of her practice.

People always ask me, ‘So what do you do?’ and I explain that I’m a regular psychologist, I’m just in a very unique environment.” Indeed, Ms. Eddy converted the barn on her ranch property into her office, but while her use of miniature donkeys is certainly unique, she stresses that she is a “psychologist first.”

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Suzy the donkey at Hudson Valley Donkey Park in New York.

Thanks to their unique features, tiny stature and calm nature, miniature Mediterranean donkeys have been used as therapy animals for years in countries around the world, including the United States and Britain. But Ms. Eddy is bringing the trend to Canada as one of the only practicing psychologists in the country using these animals to help her patients relax and open up.

“To take your child or teenager to therapy can be intimidating, so I wanted to create a place that took the scariness out of that,” says Ms. Eddy. “From the moment they drive up, people are usually greeted by our dog and then by Jimmy [Cookie Dough] and they end up with a smile on their face and it helps make them calmer and the situation less stressful.”

Animals help relieve stress or break the ice. Here, children visit Hudson Valley Donkey Park

Ms. Eddy spent several years in the Prairie Valley School division working with children, but a while back she had an ‘aha’ moment that would change her life and her practice.

Two years ago, while on a tour of a stable with some colleagues to observe equine therapy, something “just clicked” for Ms. Eddy. “I went home that night and signed up for [animal-assisted therapy] courses.” Shortly after, she acquired Jimmy (Ms. Eddy already had several sheep, pigs and horses on her ranch) and Wild Blue Psychology services was born.

Each session is different, so Jimmy’s role varies from one person to another. Often he acts as a good ice breaker for a new client. Other times he can act as a stress reliever. “Sometimes when the emotions get really high … we need to bring that down and the animals, especially Jimmy, have the ability to do that and restore the calm,” says Ms. Eddy.

The benefits of these mood-boosting mini donkeys have been known to Steve Stiert for years. Since 2012 he has operated the Hudson Valley Donkey Park, or “The Donkey Park” for short, in Ulster Park, N.Y.

“They tend to interact with people in a very calm way,” observes Mr. Stiert. “I often refer to them as ‘stress sponges,’ as just sitting with them, they have the ability to drain the stress out of you.”

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Mr. Stiert, a former IBM software engineer, started The Donkey Park after his daughter, a pre-veterinary-program student at the University of Massachusetts at the time, joined the donkey club at school.

“I went online expecting to find a lot of silly photos and videos about donkeys that I could send her as a kind of electronic care-package and instead discovered an animal that I immediately felt a strong affinity for,” recalls Mr. Stiert. Within a year he had purchased six donkeys.

Steve Stiert, Hudson Valley Donkey Park owner.

“My desire to initially use them for therapeutic work arose from seeing [a] video which showed how donkeys can interact with people,” Mr. Stiert explains, “and also because I believe that my donkeys would be healthier and happier if they had some humane work to do as opposed to being simply pasture ornaments.”

And the therapeutic benefits of these miniature donkeys are not just for the young, says Mr. Stiert. In fact, he regularly takes his herd to local seniors’ residences and says their presence can help to counteract potential isolation felt by the tenants.

“When we go to senior residents, one of the constant refrains we hear is that it brings people out of their shells,” he explains. “They get out of their rooms, they often talk about the donkeys well past a week with others, so it helps encourage socialization.”

Mr. Stiert now has 13 animals at the park, nine of which are miniature donkeys.

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Francois Labelle, owner of Heart & Soul stables in Carman, Man., knows first-hand the pull these miniature equines can have on a person.

Almost 17 years ago, Mr. Labelle set out to buy some sheep and instead arrived home with his first miniature donkey. “I just loved the way they looked,” he recalls.

Since then, Mr. Labelle has become a breeder of miniature Mediterranean donkeys, including selling the animals for therapeutic use, and says he has countless stories about the restorative benefits of his animals from their new owners.

“I wish I could explain it, but they seem to be able to sense when people are troubled,” says Mr. Labelle.

Jimmy Cookie Dough is a valuable tool in Ms. Eddy’s work with young people in her psychology practice at WIid Blue Psychology.

Kali Eddy/Handout

He has even seen the mental-health benefits of these animals in his own family and says that is one reason he will always have miniature donkeys in his life and on his property.

“My wife says donkeys are like peanuts: You can never have just one,” he laughs.

Back at Wild Blue, Ms. Eddy says that working with animals in general - whether dogs, pigs or donkeys - can help her clients work through their emotions and confront behaviours. But there is just something about miniature donkeys that make them perfectly suited for the task.

“There’s something about the way they look that draws people to them, their bigs eyes and big ears, and their almost goofy appearance,” says Ms. Eddy. “They bring with them this sort of chill, relaxed feeling and it just puts people at ease.”

Editor’s note: A photo caption incorrectly named a Hudson Valley donkey as Honey. In fact, the name is Suzy. This is the correction version of the article.
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