Pet Therapy in Mental Health

Dogs help patients open up to therapists.

The traumatized woman was sobbing uncontrollably. Her pain puddled on her cheeks and washed onto the balled fists in her lap. Then Scooby, a big blonde Golden Retriever, padded into the therapy room, studied her for a minute, and slowly walked to her side. He licked her wet hands, her dampened sweater; then he tucked his big, shaggy head into the crook of her arm.

The woman clung to the dog, stroking him, soothing herself, until her sobs subsided. She lifted her head, a wobbly smile on her lips, comforted now, composed. Still, her thin arms stayed tightly wrapped around this gentle Golden giant as she began to listen to the therapist speak.

"That first uncertain smile - that's why I do this; it touches my heart and my soul to see that smile," said Lori Tagger, licensed psychologist with St. Anthony's Psychological Services.

Since December 2010, Tagger and Scooby have been coaxing those smiles from outpatient therapy clients at Hyland Behavioral Health, on the campus of St. Anthony's Medical Center in St. Louis. Tagger, who has fostered dogs through the Love-A-Golden Rescue for the past 7 years, adopted Scooby last year.

Career Canine
Scooby, now 6 years old, recently completed training through the Jefferson County Kennel Club of Missouri Inc., passed the Canine Good Citizenship test and was certified for animal-assisted therapy. He now accompanies Tagger to work every day, participating in group and individual therapy sessions with clients ranging from mid-teens to adults.

"Teens with psychological disorders - depression, anxiety, anger issues, chemical dependency - are resistant to opening up about their problems," Tagger said. "They say, 'Why should I trust you? I don't even know you.' But animals are seen as non-threatening; there's no abuse, no manipulation, no pain - they just love you."

There is a natural tendency for humans and pets to form relationships, and animal-assisted therapy uses that tendency to help the therapist achieve goals with the patient, Tagger said. When her adolescent clients see her interacting with the dog, they see her as a safe and loving person, she said. "The kids engage with the dog, then with each other and with me."

The simple act of petting an animal actually lowers a person's blood pressure, Tagger said, and it may be especially comforting for patients who have endured abuse.

"My teenage clients often sit on the floor during therapy sessions, soothing themselves by petting the dog," Tagger said. "If the patient is a victim of sexual abuse, hugging the dog is a safe way for them to receive physical contact."

Zester on Duty
The teenager sat in stony silence - alone in a room full of other troubled teens. His anger was palpable; his mistrust worn like a mantle. Let the others talk - not him - he had nothing to say to any of them.

SPECIAL ASSISTANCE: Lori Tagger, (left), a licensed psychologist with St. Anthony's Psychological Services, sits with her Golden Retriever, Scooby. At right is Anne Marie Lynch, outpatient clinical manager at St. Anthony's Hyland Behavioral Health, with her Champion Belgian Sheepdog, Zester. Both dogs participate in animal-assisted therapy for mental health patients at St. Anthony's in St. Louis. courtesy St. Anthony Medical Center

Then a black Belgian Sheepdog, with his silky coat and winsome brown eyes, rambled quietly into the room. He dropped down on his haunches next to the boy and looked up at him expectantly. In spite of himself, the boy began to grin, instinctively reaching out to pet the dog. And then, he began to talk.

The other dog in the Hyland therapy program is Zester, a 5-year-old Champion Belgian Sheepdog whose owner, Anne Marie Lynch, is a licensed clinical social worker and outpatient clinical manager at Hyland.

"[Zester's] dad is believed to be the only living dog who worked as a therapy dog at Ground Zero," Lynch said. "He has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Kennel Club for his work as a therapy dog and his success in the show ring," Lynch said. "I bought Zester with the intention that he would be a therapy dog someday."

Lynch, who has trained both show dogs and service dogs, plans to train additional staff members at Hyland to use the dogs in outpatient therapeutic settings. She is hoping, at some point, to be able to use animal-assisted therapy in an inpatient setting as well.

"Part of what a dog does is increase the comfort level of the patients about being here," Lynch said. "People might be anxious and depressed; but they begin talking to the dog, then start conversing with each other. They're more likely to open up about what's going on in their lives."

Building Rapport
The success of psychotherapy depends on the rapport between the patient and the therapist, Lynch said. Studies show that when the therapist simply has a photo of a dog on display, the level of rapport with the patient increases, she added.

"I've had Zester in groups of adults with chemical dependency issues, where we talked about things they could do to cope instead of using drugs," Lynch said. "We talked about how pets can help provide companionship and distraction, and how petting a dog can be soothing and comforting. When Zester walks into the room, I always see increased smiles, shoulders relaxing, more verbalization. Often, patients talk about their own dogs or reminisce about dogs they had in the past. Reminiscing is especially important for older adults - it reaffirms who they are."

As for the dogs themselves, there is nothing they love more than coming to work.

"Zester gets so excited when he comes to work with me," Lynch said. "He does his little 'prancey dance' as soon as we walk in. He loves the attention he gets here."

Scooby is equally enthusiastic about his job, Tagger said. "Goldens are loving, compassionate and playful - they have the perfect temperament for this work," she added. "He is so much more effective with clients than I ever thought he could be - the results are far beyond what I expected."

One of Many Tools
Animal-assisted therapy is just one of many therapeutic techniques used at Hyland Behavioral Health to treat patients with psychiatric disorders. It may be used when the therapist decides a dog might benefit the client, and the client consents to using the animal as an intervention, Lynch said.

Both Lynch and Tagger agree the dogs have had a positive impact, helping patients open up to the therapeutic process and creating a welcoming, safe atmosphere on the unit.

"Dogs are non-judgmental, they provide a safe relationship," Tagger said. "They offer coping, healing, peace - and unconditional love. Everyone just adores them."

Lois Kendall is a media relations professional at St. Anthony's Medical Center in St. Louis.


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