The role of dogs as mental health practitioners has long been known, at least to readers of the Peanuts comic strip:
Now, research conducted at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario proves that they really do help. Valerie Gendron, an Occupational Therapist in CHEO’s In-Patient Psychiatry Program, participated in a research project to assess the impact of unstructured animal visitation on youth who were hospitalized with mental health difficulties. 1, 2
The study, based on 41 adolescents with a mean age of 15 years, concluded that the patients saw the visiting therapy dogs as supportive, felt connected to the dogs, enjoyed the visits, felt calm and soothed, and became more mindful and less stressed. They also indicated that they would continue to use connections with animals – either with their own pets or perhaps just recollecting the therapy dog visits – to help calm and comfort them after their discharge.
Two of Ottawa Therapy Dogs’ teams visit the In-Patient Psychiatry Program on alternate Fridays. Jill Sullivan accompanies her dog Jasmine, an 11-year-old boxer who survived cancer after surgery to remove part of her mouth. Jasmine thinks she is uniquely beautiful, and the kids at CHEO definitely agree! Sylvie Lambert visits with Luther, a loveable Golden Retriever who sometimes dresses up as a lion!
Valerie, Jill and Sylvie all describe the dogs’ visits in the same glowing terms. Something about the dogs’ presence, they say, calms the kids down, makes them more approachable, breaks through the reservations and trepidation they might have about being in the hospital. The dogs serve as role models for calmness and mindfulness: they live in the moment and are intensely present. Young patients can talk to the dogs more freely than to people, and new pathways are thus be opened up for therapists to follow. During the pet visits, “you see a side of these kids that you don’t see any other time.”
Attesting to the bond the patients form with Jasmine and Luther, some patients have asked to delay their discharge until after the dog’s next visit. One patient who had been admitted with severe behavioural issues returned to CHEO’s Teddy Bear Picnic after his release from hospital, just to see Jasmine. Patients who are very stressed may want to brush Luther for a while: the linear, repetitive motion calms them down, and Luther certainly doesn’t object!
Ottawa Therapy Dogs also plays an important role at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. Dr. Judy Makinen is a Clinical Psychologist with their Youth Psychiatry Program and has incorporated animal-assisted therapy into her group sessions with youth for many years – first with Dakota, and now with Fraser, a 6-year-old Golden Retriever. When Fraser joins Dr. Makinen’s group sessions, he brings a sense of calm and an openness for the youth to share their mental health struggles and experiences.
Last summer, Fraser was quite ill and he lost half of one ear. Dr. Makinen thought she would need to retire him because of his appearance. However, she brought him in to group session anyway, which lead to a wonderful therapeutic discussion about body image issues, fear of judgement, and acceptance. Their comment was, “everyone should be like Fraser, he doesn’t care what other people or dogs think of his appearance.” Interestingly, Fraser tends to be drawn to the most guarded and socially awkward youth (the underdogs, so to speak).
Fraser also attends some individual therapy sessions, particularly with youth who have difficulty trusting people and are generally ambivalent about engaging in therapy. He facilitates safety and trust. If the youth can attach to a dog, then they tend to open up to the owner. Fraser has been very effective at assisting in alliance building and therapeutic interventions, such as exposures (e.g., fear of riding elevators). Fraser accompanies the youth during the in vivo exposures, thus making it easier for them and more fun.
Jeanne describes how much the patients look forward to Buddy’s visits. Many of them miss their own dogs, especially the youngsters who have come to Ottawa from Nunavut and are far away from home. They say that when Buddy is there, he brings a feeling of normalcy – of home – to the hospital environment. There is no language barrier for them when they talk to Buddy in Inuktitut!
Jeanne also tells the powerful story of a young boy who had never been exposed to dogs before his hospitalization. He had a “meltdown” when he heard that Buddy would be visiting and at first refused to enter the room. After a while, he would wait at the door, and eventually made his way inside. Finally, after several weeks, he became so attached to Buddy that he spent the whole 45-minute visit with Buddy’s head on his lap. When he was discharged, he bought his new friend a dog toy as a farewell gift!
In sum, there is no doubt that therapy dog visits ease the anxiety levels of the young patients in mental health programs. And as an added bonus, they also make work more enjoyable for the dedicated staff who work in those programs, contributing to their mental wellness too. From all perspectives, it’s a good thing when the “dogtor” is in!
Author’s note: Shortly after this article was written, Jasmine passed away and Buddy took a well-deserved retirement. The article has been kept in its original form as a tribute to these two amazing therapy dogs & their handlers.