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New book highlights VCU Dogs on Call as a model program

VCU School of Medicine faculty edit a new book on how animals may help in the treatment of mental illness. The book is the first of its kind published by the American Psychiatric Association.

 Cover of the book "The role of companion animals in the treatment of mental disorder" on a bookshelf. The book's cover as a dog on it being pet by multiple people. The book "The role of companion animals in the treatment of mental disorder" is the first of its kind to be published by the American Psychiatric Association. (VCU Center for Human-Animal Interaction)

By Joan Tupponce

Dogs are masters of reading human body language and social cues. This makes them seem to have great intuition, knowing who to approach and how to approach them.

Animals can also positively impact the well-being of the people around them.

This is something Nancy Gee, Ph.D., knows all too well as the director of the Center and Bill Balaban Chair in Human-Animal Interaction and professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the VCU School of Medicine.

And that’s why she was the perfect choice to serve as lead editor for the volume “The Role of Companion Animals in the Treatment of Mental Disorders,” the first book of its kind published by the American Psychiatric Association.

Lisa Townsend, Ph.D., associate professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU and clinical and research associate at the Center for Human-Animal Interaction, and Robert Findling, M.D., professor and chair of the VCU Department of Psychiatry and C. Kenneth and Diane Wright Distinguished Chair in Clinical and Translational Research, were the book’s two other editors.

The three wrote a number of chapters in the book and recruited researchers from around the world to share their expertise in the intersection of psychiatry and human-animal interaction. This book unites these disciplines with the goal of recognizing how important animals can be in the lives of people who are suffering, Townsend says.

“I hope that delivering evidence-based knowledge to those who care for people and animals paves the way for all providers to explore their clients' relationships with animals and improve the well-being of both,” she said.

The latest research and practical applications detailed in each chapter

The book talks about a wide spectrum of animals, from pets to therapy animals to highly trained service animals. A lot of work is being done with horses in helping people recover from traumatic assaults. There’s also evidence that watching fish in an aquarium can reduce stress and elevate mood.

“If the aquarium is in the dining area of a retirement home, it has been shown that older people will spend more time there and will consume more calories, which helps them to maintain their body weight,” Gee said.

Existing evidence is examined to support the practices, and understand the risks associated with various types of programs, ranging from human-animal interaction on university campuses to animal-assisted crisis intervention programs for those who have experienced a significant catastrophic or traumatic event.

For example, psychiatric service dogs can be beneficial to veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Part of the book explores the benefits — waking the veteran up if having a nightmare — as well as the demands on the dogs. Another part focuses on autism spectrum disorder, highlighting a number of studies showing how animals can be involved in the treatment of children on the spectrum.

“The child may make more eye contact or generally be gentler in the presence of the animal,” Gee said. “Not all kids on the spectrum will react the same way to animals, so each child needs to be evaluated to see if an animal is a good fit for them. In the cases where there is a good fit between child and animal, the child often becomes more involved with people around them. The animal creates an opportunity for the child to be more socially engaged.”

Interacting with animals may also improve the mental and physical health of students, and potentially help them perform better in school.

“There is a lot of pressure to achieve good grades. We did a study comparing dog intervention with an established program to reduce stress. We found that interacting with dogs improved students’ executive functioning and reduced their cortisol. We may have evidence that interacting with a dog makes you smarter – probably because doing so reduces stress,” Gee said.

Beneficial impacts of dog visitation programs

Evidence builds throughout the book to show how dog visitation programs, such as the Dogs on Call program at VCU, can be beneficial to a wide variety of people. Data collected on patient populations show that they experience less anxiety, fear, depression or pain when given the opportunity to interact with therapy dogs. Dogs on Call visits also elevate the mood of healthcare workers and help to reduce their stress.

“We found that more than 70% of people who touch the dogs in the hospital are health care workers,” Gee said. “The reality is that health care workers need Dogs on Call. Based on what we’re seeing visits from Dogs on Call helps with burnout, stress and compassion fatigue.”

Gee has seen this firsthand. After several difficult months during the COVID-19 pandemic, people ran to the first dogs from the program that visited VCU Medical Center.

“We had to have escorts with the dogs to help with crowd control because so many people were flocking to them,” Gee said. “It was powerful to see that happen.”


A Dogs on Call handler holds a dog, who has its tongue sticking out.

The VCU Dogs on Call program visits patients and medical staff at VCU Medical Center as well as students and faculty on VCU's Monroe Park campus. (VCU Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

In all of this work, animals are seen as the clinician’s partner. Animals can serve as a “social lubricant to allow people to open up,” which Gee says seems to create “an opportunity to help a patient along their therapeutic process.”

“The animals are not treated like tools,” Gee said. “That’s an important theme that runs throughout the book. Our approach is to make sure they are willing participants who want to approach or engage with people. We have better interactions when the dog wants to do this. We stress the importance of ensuring the animal’s well-being through all that we do.”

To ensure their well-being, handlers for the Dogs on Call program are advised to monitor signs of stress in the dog while they are on rounds and to encourage them to advocate for their animal.

“The dog comes first, if they are tired or stressed, it’s time to take a break,” Gee said.

And taking a break is just what people do too when they see one of these therapeutic animals during their day. After spending their careers researching the impacts animals have on people, Gee, Townsend and Findling note how rewarding it is to put all of this work into a book.

"I’ve stayed in academia my entire career because teaching is an integral part of the job; disseminating new evidence-based information about the positive impact that psychiatric patients’ relationships to animals can have is an absolute privilege,” Findling said.

“It’s definitely been a passion project for me,” Gee said, noting that all royalties from the book will go to the Center for Animal-Human Interaction. “I am so grateful to the administration of VCU and VCU Health for their foresight in initiating and supporting a program like our Dogs on Call program.” 

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