One of our favorite subjects here on Mental Health News Radio is how animals can be used to positively impact mental wellness. Jeff Fink, founder of Go Fetch Wellness joins us to discuss his work and the positive impact he and his therapy dog Earl are having in Behavioral Health.
How did I get into this work?
Having lived for the last 18 plus years with treatment resistant major depression and severe anxiety, I realized the limitation in mental health treatment. For many, medications and psychotherapy provide substantial relief, for others, like me, they don’t do enough. As such, over 3 years ago, I got and trained Earl, my mental health service animal. I got him at 8 weeks old and together with several different trainers, I trained him to work with me as a service animal. Having him changed my life in ways I never could have imagined. We were, and are, inseparable. My life prior to getting Earl has been a very tough road, battling treatment resistant depression, anxiety, and a host of other symptoms. I lived in fear of ending my life for over a decade and a half and had acute episodes of such severe and debilitating depression that left me bedridden for multiple years at a time. During these times, I rarely was able to leave the house, had little contact with the outside world, and lived in great pain. Nothing worked for me, including taking over 70 combinations of psychiatric drugs. Everything changed the day I got Earl. As he got older, I started to train him in what is called “public access training” which is when he goes with me into places animals aren’t allowed. People would approach me all the time with stories of their loved ones suffering. It was at this point that I realized the gap between those who are suffering and those that may benefit from the human-animal bond.
What is Go Fetch Wellness?
GFW is a small business I started where I work to connect people suffering from a range of mental health challenges to animals, and dogs are typically the animal of choice. I work with clients wherever they are at in the healing process, allowing them to initially get to know me and bond with Earl (my dog). I visit people in their homes or treatment centers and work to get them out of isolation and moving, walking, and interacting with others. Animals have an uncanny ability to help motivate change and many people I have worked with may not have left their homes for years. The goal is to help use Animal Assisted Therapy as a catalyst for change. I’ve seen people step outside for the first time in months, feel the sun on their face, and get some relief with what may be perceived to others as a simple step, but for them took all of their best effort. We work to build on those experiences and if they respond well to connecting with us, eventually, I help place what I call a “personal therapy dog” with them so they can continue to benefit from this amazing and healing bond.
What are some success stories of Go Fetch Wellness?
Well, I like to think that any small amount of improvement in ones affect and mood is a success. However, for sake of time, I want to share a few stories of those that have made dramatic changes through AAT. I had a female client in her 20s who has had a very tough life battling schizophrenia, having been in long term residential treatment since she was 17, and not making a lot of progress. When we first met, she was convinced she was highly allergic to dogs, however her love of dogs trumped her “allergies” which we came to find out where more in her head than not. She was not walking at all, barely leaving the treatment center, and not interacting with people. We would walk and talk and she would go inside stores with us and introduce Earl to complete strangers, saying he was a service animal. The turnaround was nothing short of remarkable and after less than a year, she was able to move out and live on her own for the first time in her adult life. In addition, she had a new fluffy friend to keep her company!
What is Animal Assisted Therapy?
I like to use definitions from Pet Partners as they are one of the oldest groups for Animal Assisted Therapy in the nation. They define AAT as “ a goal oriented, planned, structured and documented therapeutic intervention directed by health and human service providers as part of their profession. A wide variety of disciplines may incorporate AAT.”
Can you explain what a typical session is like?
Since we are all individuals, there is no such thing as a typical session. Sessions will depend on the level of functioning of my clients. For some, a session could be sitting with someone while they cry, process, and share some of their struggles. For others, we may spend the entire session outside, walking, interacting with strangers that may be drawn to the dog, working on gaining social skills, or even helping people overcome their fears of public places.
Is AAT right for everyone?
Just like with any type of healing modality, a good fit for someone could be a bad fit for someone else. Of course, those with severe allergies would not be a great fit for AAT. In addition, people who have had severe trauma around animals (maybe they were attacked as a chid), may have so much fear, that this work could be counter productive. AAT certainly could be considered for those who are not getting better with traditional treatments. When there has been no light at the end of the tunnel for extended periods of time, being able to have even the slightest glimmer of hope can be enough to help someone climb out of the darkness and into the light. Even for those that may not be as symptomatic, there is much we can learn from animals, which directly correlates with life skills important for any person.
What are some short and long term goals of GFW?
Short term, we want to help as many individuals as possible connect with an animal and see who responds to the wonderful healing powers of the human-animal bond. For those that have not gotten relief from traditional treatments, AAT is a very viable option to try. Animals act as natural healers, are very intuitive, are non-judgmental, and allow us to open up without fear of a reaction or being told what we should be doing. They also provide us with lots of love which is so important for individuals hyper-sensitive to their environment and particularly those that have been so symptomatic that they may not experience this love from their human counterparts or may be more closed off with people. More long term goals are to establish a charitable organization that allows myself and others to work with individuals regardless of their finances. I strongly believe that everyone should have access to quality and innovative healthcare. In addition, I see tons of potential in pairing up with the peer specialist movement and training more individuals who are farther along in their recovery to do the same work I am doing now. This may look like weekly programs for peer specialists where they learn about animals, visit local shelters, give back to the community, walk dogs, learn about how dogs help us heal, all while helping maintain their own stability. So, if there are any agencies out there, foundations, or existing nonprofits that this sounds like a fit for you, please contact me as it is imperative to work together towards common goals, particularly in a field that is still relatively small.
Are you saying that all I have to do is go out and get a dog and I will be healed?
I have found this question to be very common, as people do not understand how much goes into a formalized approach to incorporating animals into current treatment. Anyone that has gone out to get their first dog, especially a puppy, knows about the huge learning curve of owning an animal. When someone has severe and persistent mental health challenges, simply going to the shelter to pick out a dog could prove to be detrimental journey. There are several reasons for this. First, at Go Fetch Wellness we help keep things very simple. You don’t have to think about dog ownership, the cost of maintaining a dog, how much exercise it may need, where it should sleep, etc. You simply get to be in the presence of a loving animal and let the interaction work for you. Second, as a bond is cultivated, I help my clients learn about different breeds and I learn about their strengths and weaknesses. For example, for seniors, a large dog like Earl may be too much work and they may want to consider a dog or even another animal that doesn’t require as much daily exercise and attention. Third, many of my clients are not caring for themselves and therefore need help with setting certain goals in their own life, before bringing an animal partner into the mix. Fourth, I help clients answer questions about anything animal related as well as mental health so as to not leave the burden of research on their plate as showering or eating maybe more realistic goals to start. Finally, my job is to act as a coach, mentor, consultant, and friend during the process. I visit animal shelters with clients and observe them with different breeds and energy levels. The decision to get a dog should be well thought out and planned and at the right time vs impromptu and without consideration.
We already have a pet at home but my loved one is still sick. How would your approach offer anything different?
This is a great question on many fronts. Many families that I work with already have dogs but they tend to be more in the background than on the front lines so to speak. I know when I was at my worst, my parents would not expect me to care for the family dog nor did I have a desire to do so. No one thought about the benefits of my using the animal’s schedule to help get me on a schedule. Many families do not know what to do with their loved ones as they helplessly watch them suffer and certainly wouldn’t think to involve them in the care of the family dog. In addition, the family dog is just that, a family dog and not someone’s own dog that they picked up and have a special connection too. Moreover, there is a lot to be learned in terms of how to slowly integrate the care of the family dog into one’s treatment plan. Sometimes the existing dog may not have the personality traits that is a good fit for the family member experiencing mental health challenges. No one can be expected to go from the psychiatric hospital to his or her family home to caring for the family dog. My motto is keep things simple, move slowly, and increase your chances for success.
I have seen therapy animals at schools, hospitals, and nursing homes, is that the same as the work you do with Go Fetch Wellness?
No, the work I do is very different from the typical therapy animal visitation program. While organizations such as Pet Partners play a vital roll in spreading the word about the human-animal bond, they are limited in how much they can work with individuals. Meaning, many visitations programs to a hospital are weekly or bi-monthly and those that interact with the dogs may not ever be able to see the dogs again, especially when they leave the hospital. This is where I feel many more programs could fill the gap and provide more continuity of care.
For example, if a child undergoing cancer treatment really connected with a visiting dog, how will they continue that relationship after they leave the hospital? This is one area GFW steps in as we visit people in their homes and work with their current treatment team to develop realistic goals and a plan of action. Currently, there are very few programs set up to give people more individualized attention and my hopes are that more will pop up as time progresses.
What are some advantages to pet ownership in relation to mental health?
Below, I have listed several way animals may help our mental health:
Increase Social Interactions
Motivation for Exercise
Improve cardiovascular health through the reduction of anxiety, loneliness, and depression
Supports healthier living patterns by requiring schedule, remembering to eat, drink water, etc
Studies have shown reduction in medications GoFetchWellness
Decrease in Anxiety
Relief from Isolation
Increase Self Esteem, wellbeing, and security
Help Elicit range of Emotions from laughter to crying. Animals provide comic relief due to their humorous behaviors
Provide Unconditional Love
Provides a Sense of Purpose
For the Elderly:
Helps them reminisce about past animals and life events
Provides Increase in their daily activities
Elevates sense of Loneliness and Isolation
Spark conversations with strangers
I founded Go Fetch Wellness, a company dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals who have mental health conditions. I serve others alongside my 3 ½ year old Golden Retriever, Earl, who serves as the CCO (chief canine officer) of the company. A big part of my mission is to educate, teach, and assist individuals both in learning about, and experiencing first hand, the amazing healing powers that can be derived from the human-animal connection. With limited treatment modalities, many people resign themselves to a life of unrelenting pain and suffering.
My own life was one of hopelessness until the day I got Earl. Since then, he and I have been inseparable. As I began to recover, I decided that Earl and I would seek, in a new and different way, to help others who were struggling as I had so many times. As Earl helped me recover, I began helping others, individually and in group environments, by speaking, volunteering, and engaging with people for whom I had tremendous empathy.
Many who suffer from mental health disorders or conditions have no resources, are unable to find adequate care, and have very little personal or economic support. I was fortunate to be raised in a supportive family that worked hard and was able to provide me with a good college education and excellent medical treatment. Even with the best psychiatric support I could hope for, from the age of 19 on, I experienced many years of depression, anxiety, and pain.I learned that mental health disorders do not discriminate, and while many feel their experience is worse than everyone else’s, the common trait is the desire to suffer less and to experience some quality of life.
Although I am a “people-person” by nature, there were many time periods where I could hardly take care of myself, and where I felt more and more isolated from family and friends. During these periods, I exhausted nearly all available traditional and many non-traditional treatment modalities, which lead me to search for anything that would help reduce the horribly painful experience of my “treatment resistant” depression.
In furthering my work in this field, I completed a year-long program on Animal Assisted Therapy through the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work. I have worked with Earl through therapists or outside of traditional models to help individuals who do not have the ability or desire to raise, train, or care for their own dog.
So far, the results have been outstanding and personally rewarding, in some cases moving individuals who have been struggling for years in the direction of hope and recovery. Animal assisted therapy is part of the “whole person” model of healing. I believe it works best when there is dialogue and collaboration with the individual’s current treatment “team”, but it can work outside of that as an adjunct to more formal and traditional therapies.
Jeff Fink and Earle joined our CEO, Kristin Sunanta Walker, at http://www.nctide.org to present a workshop on the importance of animal assisted therapy.