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Transformative Animal-Assisted Therapy Program Unleashes Healing Power of Dogs

Advance With MUSC Health
February 12, 2024
A sleepy dog lies in a chair.

Anyone who's ever loved a dog knows just how therapeutic a four-legged friend can be. With a mere wag of a tail and a sloppy kiss on the cheek, a dog can soothe one's soul and make the day seem, well, not so bad after all.

At MUSC Health, an outpatient mental health therapy program is raising love on a leash to a whole new level through patients.

Facilitated by Shannon Fitzgerald, a licensed therapist and veterinary social worker, the sessions are part of ReVisions, an intensive group therapy program for adults 18 and older.

Enhancing Mental Health through Canine Companionship

Unlike pet therapy sessions where dogs trot around a room soaking up affection and getting petting and hugs from doting patients, animal-assisted therapy puts these dogs to work.

"These dogs aren't emotional support dogs, and they're not here just to help patients feel comfortable," Fitzgerald says. "They help patients understand and manage their mental health needs, gain insight into their emotions and develop coping skills. The therapy sessions use dogs to their fullest capacity, and that's why we call them 'animal-assisted.'"

Fitzgerald directly incorporates the dogs into the treatment, documenting their interaction to help patients achieve specific goals. Through methods such as role-playing and discussion, patients work on managing anxiety, developing communication and relationships and practicing functional skills.

The Right Stuff: Providing Calm and Support for Trauma Patients

Not every canine is suited for the job, and that's what makes Grant, an 80-pound wire-coated, laid-back Bouvier des Flandres, and Pip, a 50-pound energetic Australian Shepherd, just right for their roles.

Both are certified therapy dogs, meaning they and their owner-handlers have undergone extensive training to earn therapy dog certification through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs organization.

"These patients have experienced a lot of trauma, so they need a calm, obedient dog — one that listens and is not going to overreact to an emotional state," Fitzgerald says. "Grant will take anything we throw at him. People will cry with him, and Pip excels at teaching emotional regulation, anger management and skill-building because of his energetic personality."
The room is sparsely furnished – only a circle of chairs and a bare floor where Grant and Pip lie quietly, usually beside someone's chair. They know when and how to approach a patient from their training and instruction from the handler or Fitzgerald.

Trust and Affection

Participation in the animal-assisted therapy session is voluntary. "Patients can interact as little or as much as they like, and if they choose to leave the room, that's OK, too," Fitzgerald says. "We always ask everyone if they are afraid of dogs, have allergies or any reason why they don't want to be around the dogs."

No one has opted out. On the contrary, patients look forward to Thursdays, which is when Grant and Pip show up for work, and for many, being in the company of dogs fills a need.

"Pip's and Grant's presence creates an atmosphere of trust, where I see individuals opening up and bonding with one another as well as the dogs," Fitzgerald says. "Patients can say anything to them because they're nonjudgmental."

For example, Fitzgerald will ask patients to think of a negative statement they would say to themselves and ask them to say it to Grant or Pip instead.

"'You're not deserving of love,' or "You'll never amount to anything,' are things they might say. We talk about how that makes them feel saying it to the dog. Then they'll say, "Oh my gosh, you deserve the best things in life, and you're worthy of a good life.' Then I ask them to repeat that to themselves. It has a profound effect."

On walks with the group, Fitzgerald will use a technique called reflective questioning. "I'll hand someone the leash and ask them how they're talking to the dog. How are they keeping the dog moving in the right direction? And how does this apply to the skills they're learning?"

After each session, Fitzgerald gets written feedback that she hopes to compile into a research project. And if the enthusiastic responses are any indication, Pip and Grant earn five "dog stars." With patient responses such as "The dogs motivate me to come to the session" "They help me process my emotions" and "They make me happy."

As for Pip and Grant, Fitzgerald says they appear to receive as much as they give. "They really love being with our patients and providing comfort, and they thrive on that emotional and physical connection. I like to think it's similar to what a therapist gets out of this — being able to help an individual open up and build confidence and self-esteem in a non-judgmental way."

Learn More

MUSC Health ReVisions is open to new patients and takes provider and self-referrals. ReVisions is located at Cannon Park Place, Suite 250, 261 Calhoun Street, Charleston, SC 29401. Call 843-792-5567 for more information.