The issues of mental health disorders and illnesses can be further worsened by the social stigma surrounding these topics. Despite the more recent growth of awareness, patients still commonly cite a barrier in understanding or fear of isolation as a major obstacle in overcoming these illnesses. To provide these patients the treatment they need, mental health organizations such as Attitudes in Reverse have implemented a solution that directly removes this social stigma and makes it easier for patients to talk about their issues: dogs. Specifically, therapy dogs.
One such therapy dog is Shasta, an “11-year old mixed breed with a beautiful red brindle coat,” describes her owner, Barbara Eget of Bordentown. Seven years ago, Shasta was surrendered to a high kill shelter in Georgia, and would have died had Eget not reached out to a rescue group to save her. “She was very sick with heartworm disease and needed treatment before we could adopt her,” Eget said.
“(Our family) has always owned dogs and had one pass away the year before. We were ready to love a new dog but we knew we wanted to rescue a dog from the shelter,” she said. Very soon after bringing Shasta into the family, Eget noticed that she had the temperament and nature to be a therapy dog. And, since having a therapy dog was something Eget had always wanted to do, she decided to enroll Shasta in training.
In 2012, Shasta received her Canine Good Citizen certification through the American Kennel Club, and both her and Eget were tested and certified as a therapy team. “I like to think that we saved Shasta’s life so in turn she is saving the lives of youth.”
The power of therapy dogs isn’t just limited to their nature. According to the American Psychiatric Association, therapy dogs serve “an integral part in the mental health treatment process.” Petting or playing with a dog can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin, as well as feel-good hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, while reducing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. As the APA notes, these reactions help decrease anxiety, increase a sense of comfort and security, and enhance self-esteem and confidence, amongst other effects.
Because of these benefits, mental health organizations like Attitude in Reverse implement therapy dogs as a crucial step in their programs. AIR, co-founded by Kurt and Tricia Baker of Plainsboro after they lost their son to suicide, works with over a dozen therapy dogs to visit schools and teach “youth about mental health and suicide prevention,” Tricia Baker, a certified mental health First AID instructor and professional dog trainer, said. In fact, AIR has conducted face-to-face education on these issues for over 70,000 youth in seven states.
In order to ensure that their therapy dogs have the necessary qualities to do their job, Baker herself oversees their training. “All therapy dog candidates must have accepting personalities, accepting of other people and dogs. AIR dogs must be confident and able to (work) in a school with loud, enthusiastic students,” Baker said.
After hearing of AIR’s work with therapy dogs, Eget decided to get herself and Shasta involved 2013. “I got involved because my teenage son has a mental illness and I wanted to share AIR’s message of suicide prevention and taking care of your mental health,” she said.
Since then, Shasta has visited many schools with AIR to destress students during a difficult conversation about suicide prevention. “Sometimes a student may become upset by the presentation, triggering feelings that they are struggling with. The AIR dogs can help students destress and de-escalate,” Baker said. AIR dogs have been invited to schools and colleges during stressful periods such as midterms and finals, for wellness fairs. “Most recently, AIR dogs have been invited to schools after a students’ death,” she added.
In these visits, both Eget and Baker noticed that Shasta has had a remarkable positive on the students. “Shasta has a way with people and can make even a timid student feel at ease with her easy going nature. She will literally lay on the floor with kids and just let them snuggle, and in the middle of a school day what could be better,” Eget said.
“Just seeing a kid open up about their struggles while petting Shasta makes it all worth while,” she said.
In fact, Shasta’s fantastic work led to her nomination for the Hero Dog Award from the American Humane Society, along with other therapy dogs from AIR. Although she did not move on to the next round of selection, her contributions have been well noted by all those who work with her, and Eget hopes that Shasta can continue working as a therapy dog for the foreseeable future. “I will have her continue as long as she finds joy in what she does. I believe all dogs want a purpose and a job. She gets very animated when she sees her vest come out!” Eget said. In her free time, Shasta enjoys hiking and exploring through the woods.
For more information about Attitudes in Reverse, visit: attitudesinreverse.org. If you or a loved one is facing a mental health emergency or facing risk of suicide, please call the National Suicide Emergency Hotline: 1‑800‑273‑8255.