Service dog helps adolescent patients with mental health

Tucker the goldendoodle is part of behavioral health program at Sanford Fargo

A Sanford Health therapy dog lies on the floor with multiple adolescent arms petting him at once.

He might not look like a typical Sanford Health employee, but Tucker is a trained service dog, and an integral part of Sanford’s Child and Adolescent Partial Hospitalization Program in Fargo, North Dakota.

“The program is aimed at adolescents ages 12 to 18 who are struggling with mental health concerns, such as depression or anxiety, but others too,” said Stefanie Hanisch, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Sanford Health Fargo. “It is to try and prevent hospitalizations for those kids who already are in outpatient treatment, but have not been able to be successful or some other stressors occurred in their lives to where something a little bit of a higher level is required.”

This pup is part of the program

Enter Tucker and his owner, Wanda Carlson, a licensed social worker at Sanford.

“Kids come here typically for about half a day in the school year,” said Carlson. “We do school for about 90 minutes, but then there’s five different groups that you go to. So he is worked into part of the groups with me, and he also is a pretty welcoming person when kids start on the first day, because it’s kind of scary.”

Patients in the program are typically referred by a therapist or a primary care provider, but once they arrive and meet Tucker, his personality tends to help immediately. Dr. Hanisch says that isn’t a coincidence.

“We are really lucky to have Tucker here. He adds so much joy and a lightness to the program that I think would be lacking without him,” said Dr. Hanisch. “There’s lots of research to suggest that animals are therapeutic in general and also some really good peer reviewed research about how they can be specifically helpful to folks who have mental illness.”

“He’s pretty chill,” said Carlson. “He will sit right next to people and he kind of sits half on you. … He’s very much a speed dater, because he works the whole room, so he will stop and visit.”

Benefits of a furry friend

Tucker is nine years old now and has been a pet partner at Sanford since January of 2016. He started his training before he was two years old, and has to be recertified every two years. While this goldendoodle — a golden retriever-poodle mix — helps patients during their time in the program, he can brighten the mood of his fellow employees as well.

“There’s a whole slew of benefits to having the dog,” said Dr. Hanisch. “He just oftentimes provides a lot of comic relief. He’s a bit of a goofball sometimes, but he’s just a gentle giant. It’s as much for the staff as it is for the patients. We just all love having him around.”

Tucker definitely leaves an imprint. Some of Tucker’s patients have drawn pictures of him and sent them to Carlson after their treatment. And he embodies the benefits of service animals not just as pets, but as trained healers as well.

“Tucker is just a really splendid example of such an animal. They’re just calm and really unshakeable,” said Dr. Hanisch. “(He) seems to just have a great sense of what is needed and whether people are having a good day or a bad day. It’s something that most of us who have pets know about. But there’s something about that bond between people and animals that is really quite special.”

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Posted In Behavioral Health, Children's, Fargo

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