Thursday. Two o’clock. New Patient. Five-year-old Luke is anxious and vigorously opposing his mother’s effort to move him towards the consultation office. But then, a dash to the window where he sees the dogs. “Can I play with them? Can I pet them?’”
The dogs, Annie, Bess and Jake surround Luke and lead him, galloping to my office. I catch up to my group. We enter the office and I hand Luke a red brush. He settles down in the curve of the blackest, biggest dog, Annie, the two-year old Newfoundland, and begins methodically brushing. After the introduction by the dogs, I introduce myself, “Hi Luke, I’m Dr. Copelan. Why are you here?” Still brushing intensely, obsessionally, Luke answers, “Something is wrong with my brain. Can you fix it?” Luke really did give me the diagnosis and ask for treatment in the first five minutes.
Therapy dogs provide a warm and instantly friendly welcome for the fearful and uncomfortable. Dogs make people feel loved, safe and worthwhile. Dogs also provide an introduction to relationships.
Sara was a teenage girl with severe anorexia nervosa. She had been hospitalized for treatment of starvation crisis. She came to the office still emaciated, benefits exhausted, withdrawn, pre-occupied and alienated from human relationships. Her long auburn hair veiled her face from intrusion. Moreover, she insisted on evening appointments so as to avoid the light. Jake, the yellow Labrador, would eagerly greet her at each meeting, right from the start. Out interaction was my talking. Her silence was broken by occasional monosyllabic sounds. One evening she invited Jake to sit on the couch with her. Afterward, she greeted me by asking about Jake: “Is he here today!” On the phone calls between sessions, she would ask me if Jake remembered her. Not only would Jake remember her, but each and every session he would take his appointed place on the couch, gently nudging her arm around him. “He really knows me, Dr. Copelan, he really likes me.” So began Sara’s journey from the alienation and anhedonia of anorexia. Months passed. Sara, still thin and bony, rushed into my office pleading, “Please talk to my parents. I found a puppy, like Jake. I want to call him Ikey. My parents don’t believe I’ll feed him, but I will.” Sara and Ikey started to gain weight.
And there’s Emily. This middle-aged woman had reluctantly agreed to make an appointment as a condition of her hospital discharge plan, following a near-fatal overdose. Molested and neglected in childhood, she had raised herself in isolation, feeling worthless despite evident career success and inclined to self-destruction in times of distress. In treatment, with Jake assisting, Emily changed. Jake would trot into the waiting room filled with other doctor’s patients and retrieve his patient. “What a sterling example of a Labrador you are,” became her regular greeting. Betrayed by people, she was able to respond to Jake’s xxxxxx warm recognition. He was unswerving, constant and loving. Today not only does she own several dogs (one, of course, a Labrador) she has had a baby and now both knows attachment and can provide attachment.
In Babylonia and Assyria, Gula, the healing deity whose emblem was a dog, was worshipped by physicians. Dogs were use for healing at the shrine dedicated to Aesculapius at Epidaurus in Greece. It was said that if a man thought he was in danger of going insane, he carried a dog with him. The dog would keep evil spirits at bay. Pets assisted therapy at the York Retreat in England in the late 1700’s. In 1867, Bethel, a German clinic for epilepsy introduced pets as part of the treatment and this continues to the present day. The first documented American use of animals for rehabilitation was at an Army-Air Force hospital in New York, just after World War II. Today, we find extensive literature on the use of dogs for those who are physically challenged and disabled. We read of documented studies of the reduction of heart disease, improvement in cancer outcomes, reduction of depression in pet owners.
The dogs, Annie, Jake and Bessie (the trainee) are part of our life at home. They have been part of life at the office since puppy days. Like the guide dogs, therapy dogs are trained for their profession. They have a professional identity, a professional decorum, impeccable manners. They have an obvious sense that they are working. An intimate, affectionate communicative and respectful bond exists between the dogs and me. I have high expectations of them. I trust them. They are predictable and suitable. They are chosen for their exquisite sensitivity, enthusiasm, expressiveness and quick responsiveness. They have all passed extensive temperament tests through the Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy, Love on a Leash. They are certified, their diplomas hang on my wall.
Pet assisted programs are becoming more and more recognized. It is exciting, intriguing work. The patients, as well as the dogs and the psychiatrist, have the capacity to benefit from this endeavor. I love what I have been able to bring to my practice.
“OK Annie. OK Jake. OK Bess. It’s time to go to work. Jump in the car.” And our day begins.
Editor’s Note: For more information on Pet-Provided Therapy please call the Foundation for Pet Provided Therapy’s Love on a Leash at (619) 630-4824.