Enjoy all your local news and sports for less than 5¢ per day.

Subscribe Now

With or without training, animals are good medicine for human mental health

Mabel, Phoenix Center therapy dog

Mabel works as a facility service dog at the Phoenix Center in Horseshoe Bay. She trained for two years at Canine Companions and the Courthouse Dogs Foundation. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

Recently, a teen client at the Phoenix Center in Horseshoe Bay was feeling suicidal. Mabel, a 65pound golden retriever/Labrador mix, climbed in her lap and touched her face with her paw, easing her suffering and relieving the tension.

“Mabel knows who needs her help the most,” said Sarah Garrett, the center’s executive director. “These powerful connections are very healing and therapeutic for our clients. It’s really changed so many children’s and teens’ lives.” 

While Mabel received two years of training at Canine Companions and the Courthouse Dogs Foundation to become a facility service dog for traumatized children, new studies indicate that household pets can also help children develop their emotional and social skills and process trauma. Even adults benefit from pet ownership with decreased stress and improved heart health and blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. 

For the past 10 years, scientists have studied the mental health benefits of everything from pet fish to dogs. Watching fish swim can reduce stress and feelings of anxiety. Caring for a small animal, like a bird, hamster, or guinea pig, creates a bond that can lift depression. 

Dogs, however, are supreme beings when it comes to making a beneficial connection between human and animal. 

“Dogs are very present,” Dr. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, said in an NIH report. “If someone is struggling with something, they know how to sit there and be loving. Their attention is focused on the person all the time.”

Mabel excels at that job skill, even allowing young children to paint her toenails with pet-safe polish. 

“We’ve had young kids, 2 and 3 years old, dress her up with dress clothes,” Garrett said. “Mabel provides so much love and nurture and support. They can hug her and cuddle with her. They know what they need, and she seems to know what they need, too.” 

In 2015, Mabel was assigned by Canine Companions to the Phoenix Center, a nonprofit that provides mental health care to children and their families in the Highland Lakes. Her specialty, aside from a calm demeanor — or maybe because of it — is working with children who show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“A child living with family violence or with a parent who abuses drugs, their symptoms can be very much like a soldier coming back from a combat zone,” Garrett said. “Animals can help. Animals can help you tolerate stress. They are therapeutic in a lot of ways.” 

Dogs have become popular additions to law enforcement agencies to relieve the stress faced by officers, dispatchers, and staff. Both Burnet and Llano counties have recently welcomed therapy dogs to the ranks as has the Marble Falls Police Department.

Marble Falls Police Department therapy dog Brody
Brody is a rescue dog who now works for the Marble Falls Police Department as a therapy animal. He is certified as an emotional support dog. Staff photo by Suzanne Freeman

Marble Falls Police Chief Glenn Hanson was a latecomer to the idea of having a therapy dog in the department. 

“My staff had been asking for a while, and I heard about the benefits, but I said, ‘No, we’re not going to do this,’” he said. 

Then, he met Brody, a 107-pound German shepherd/mastiff/Great Dane mix.

“I said, ‘OK, let’s try this,” he said. “By 3 o’clock that afternoon, we were out of the try and into the do.” 

Hanson learned about the benefits of therapy dogs at the 2022 annual meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Dallas.

“I will tell you, it has nothing to do with science,” he said. “I see it. You can’t be sad around this dog. You can’t be mad around him. It’s pretty fantastic to have that as another tool in our toolbox for mental health and resilience here in the police department.”  

The Phoenix Center is expanding its animal therapy programs to include horses and chickens. Currently, it partners with Tonkawood Farms near San Antonio for its equine therapy but hopes to soon raise enough money to have horses on site. Garrett is planning to add chickens as part of a horticultural therapy program. 

The horses from Tonkawood have also gone through traumatic experiences. Some were scheduled to be put down but were rehabilitated as service animals. 

“The kids really relate to them,” Garrett said. “They choose the horse they want to work with, and it can often be really illuminating. Sometimes, they and the horse have attributes in common.” 

The horses, like Mabel and Brody, have an innate sense of what the people around them need.

That animal-human connection makes all the difference, Chief Hanson said.

“I’m thankful, very grateful, that we have the opportunity to have Brody with us here at the police department,” he said. “He’s a trailblazer here in the Central Texas area.” 

A pet, whether at work or home, is true creature comfort.