4-legged therapists connect with patients at Salina clinic

Salina — Whenever Jackie Casteel has difficulty dealing with her depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, she knows she can rely on the comforting paw of a four-legged therapist named Louise.

Louise, a black English Labrador, doesn’t ask anything of Casteel except to provide a warm lap to sit in or a ball to chase across the room.

For Casteel, it’s about the best therapy she’s ever had.

“(Louise) calms me down,” said Casteel, who lives in the Manhattan area. “She’ll play with you, she’ll sit with you. She knows when you’re sad.”

Casteel is a client at Veridian Behavioral Health, a multidisciplinary mental health care center that is part of the behavioral health department of Salina Regional Health Center. Many of Veridian’s psychiatrists, counselors and nurse practitioners serve individuals and families struggling with common life problems such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, marital problems, parent-child conflicts or grief and loss.

Recently, the center added another tool to help clients in its programs — certified therapy dogs.

Three dogs specifically, have been introduced to the programs: Louise, a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Phil and a Great Dane named Daisy. These dogs assist adult inpatient and outpatient clients at the hospital, as well as children suffering trauma and other mental health issues at Veridian’s east campus, the Salina Journal reported.

Angela Koerperich, an advanced nurse practitioner who owns and supervises Daisy, said Veridian received a grant in October 2015 to add three certified therapy dogs into its mental health program. She and two other Veridian nurse practitioners took on a dog: Louise belongs to Jennifer Pekarek and Phil is owned by Marcia Cleavenger.

“We’ve talked about this for years as something that would be great to have in the inpatient unit,” Koerperich said. “We worked together to make it happen. We got in contact with CARES, and the pieces just came together.”

CARES, which stands for Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education & Services, is a Concordia-based specialty service that offers specially trained canine assistants to people with disabilities throughout the U.S., as well as professional therapy dogs for schools, mental health facilities, hospitals and nursing homes.

The majority of dogs that CARES trains are produced from its own breeding programs or are donated ex-show dogs, specifically bred puppies and family pets. Dogs are fostered out to volunteer homes and facilities where they are raised for nine to 18 months, learn basic obedience and become socialized to all aspects of public and private life.

Louise and Daisy happened to be trained by inmates at the Ellsworth Correctional Facility, Cleavenger said, which has established a dog training program.

“It can be nearly a two-year process before they’re certified,” she said.

To become a certified therapy animal, a dog has to have the right kind of temperament to interact with subjects who may be going through trauma or other mental or physical issues, Cleavenger said.

“A lot of times people come into the clinic, and they’ll be highly anxious or depressed,” she said. “A therapy dog helps to ease the anxiety and make it easier to converse with that person. I’ve had a patient with high blood pressure who, once they spent a little time with Phil, their high blood pressure dropped.”

Koerperich said Daisy, who like the other therapy dogs wears an identifiable vest while at “work,” does wonders with children at the Veridian outpatient office.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get children to engage or take their medicine, and the dogs can help,” she said. “When you are talking to kids about trauma, it’s nice to have Daisy in the room. Sometimes a child will talk to the dog and not the therapist. They’ll take Daisy outside, walk her around. It’s nice to have that physical distraction.”

Pekarek said at Veridian’s inpatient unit at the hospital, Louise has been an immense help when it comes to communicating with patients who are virtually disabled as a result of trauma or mental issues.

“Louise seems to warm up to people really fast,” Pekarek said. “I’ll bring Louise into the inpatient units, and she seems to know who needs her the most. She will stay with them, even if that person won’t get out of bed. There was a 14-year-old girl here who would not talk to me or her mother, but she talked to Louise. It’s amazing to watch.”


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