Human-animal bonding relationships have existed as long as humans and animals have lived, worked and played together--evidence of positive relationships between people and animals goes back thousands of years. More recently, dogs were used to help heal psychiatric patients in the military as early as 1919 and throughout various wars up until the present. However, a quick look at the literature examining the benefits of this intervention shows that we have a long way to go in building empirical support for the benefits of Pet Therapy. For instance, the Department of Defense does not currently have a department-wide policy regarding Pet Therapy and does not specifically endorse any project or certifying body. Animal Assisted Therapy is not currently listed as an evidence-based therapy for any specific disorder and is considered a complimentary or alternative therapy. On the other hand, there is ample anecdotal evidence of the advantages, and the utilization of Pet Therapy is growing rapidly. I have been fortunate enough in my career to have some experience with Pet Therapy and I thought it might be helpful to discuss this history and, in the follow-up to this article, answer some questions that I am often asked about it and to offer some suggestions for those who may consider initiating a Pet Therapy program.
Let me start by providing a bit of information about my personal history and experience in the Pet Therapy world--it is through this that I have learned the most about it. I have always been an animal lover and a dog lover in particular, and as I began to study and practice Psychology in graduate school, I had opportunities to see how dogs put people at ease in most every situation. For example, I recall that one of my professors in graduate school brought his dog into work most every day, and this would light up faces in the classroom as well as in department meetings. Around this time, I also had a community placement working with incarcerated juveniles as part of my graduate training, and I was given the opportunity to bring my dog Emily (a black Cocker mix) to work on a few occasions to visit with some adolescents in a group therapy setting. I had suggested this to my supervisor because many of the adolescents were wary of the group therapy process. As I predicted, having Emily there helped the group members open up and we were able to establish rapport more easily than in previous sessions.
My relationship with Pet Therapy continued into my pre-doctoral Psychology internship at Wright Patterson Medical Center in that there was a large program in the hospital when I was there in the late 1990s as an intern. I was not involved (other than to pet the dogs as they walked through the halls!) since my dog Emily was not a certified Therapy Dog at that time. However, when I moved to Robins Air Force Base a year later to continue my Air Force service as a psychologist, our hospital commander had an interest in Pet Therapy and asked if I would start a program there. I gladly agreed and proceeded to develop the necessary rules and policies to guide the program. My dog Emily became a registered therapy dog through Therapy Dogs, Inc., and she began spending time with patients and staff throughout the hospital. Eventually, the social worker which whom I worked joined the program with his chocolate lab Ashley. In addition to bringing Emily and Ashley to do Pet Therapy in the hospital, we took the dogs out to visit with troops in some of the more high-stress units. This was a huge hit and allowed us to talk to people informally about mental health issues such as substance use, sleep, etc.
After separating from the Air Force, I worked in my own private practice for several years, and Emily attended sessions as requested. She was particularly helpful in putting children and teenagers at ease, but some adults routinely wanted her to be there for their appointments. In addition, Emily and I maintained her Therapy Dog certification by going to nursing homes and schools to visit on a regular basis.
Sadly, Emily’s Therapy Dog career ended when she died rather suddenly in 2006, but she was providing Pet Therapy visits until the last few weeks of her life. After about a year, I was ready to get another dog, and Coleman (that’s him in the picture), a rescued Golden Retriever pup, began his career in Pet Therapy. Coleman began visiting with my clients in my practice as a puppy, so he was socialized early to be friendly and receptive to people giving him affection. Also, his temperament makes him a perfect Therapy Dog because he is calm, smart, and extremely friendly.
After coming full circle to work at Wright Patterson Medical Center again—now as a Center for Deployment Psychology psychologist—I was thrilled to have the chance to be a part of the development of a new Pet Therapy Program at Wright Patterson Medical Center in 2010. After the late 1990s, the program in the hospital had been discontinued but in 2010, renewed interest resulted in a committee of people working to bring back the program, and I was able to participate in this. Today, the program is going strong with 18 teams of handlers and dogs, all certified by a local Pet Therapy organization. There is at least one team in the hospital nearly every day, and patients and staff are consistently giving the program rave reviews. Coleman is an official member of the Pet Therapy team and visits at the mental health clinic once or twice per month for the benefit of the mental health clinic staff. In addition, I take Coleman out to units on base while we give mental health briefings or talk informally to airmen about mental health resources and topics. Coleman gets a “paw in the door” for us when young airman might otherwise be hesitant to spent time with a mental health provider or technician.
Now that you know a little about my history and experience with Pet Therapy, in the follow up to this piece, I thought it might be helpful to answer some commonly asked questions that I encounter. In addition, I will be including some things I have learned along the way pertaining to setting up Pet Therapy programs and working within the programs. I’ll see you next time!
Dr. Regina Shillinglaw is a Deployment Behavioral Health Psychologist for the Center for Deployment Psychology at Wright-Patterson Medical Center in Dayton, OH.