Therapy dogs used in Southwest Virginia institute to help patients with mental illness


Therapy dogs are a crucial part of mental health treatment right here in our area.

News 5's Jessica Griffith finds out how they're being used at the Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Marion.

These pups aren't your typical nurses. But workers at the Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute tell me the dogs are important to their patients health.

"We've seen many times how they'll relate to a dog before they'll relate to a human. And then they'll come on and start doing things and come out of their shell," Lesu Cole, recreation therapist said. All of the dogs are owned by staff members. We're told there's typically at least one dog at the institute every day, so if a patient needs one, they're there.

"I've seen other patients on there who can be crying or yelling, not angrily. And the dogs walk on the ward and immediately they're quiet, they're smiling, they're interacting with the dogs," Psychologist Judy Britt said. She credits animal therapy for a breakthrough with a long-term patient who had a stroke and was non-verbal.

"I brought one of them in, approached him and he said 'hey buddy.' That was the only comprehensible words I've ever heard him say and I've not heard him since," Britt said. For privacy reasons, we weren't allowed to speak with patients directly, but staff members asked for us about the benefits of pet therapy. One said, "they make me feel good and comfortable." Another, "they're like a little bit of sunshine." And "I love the kisses." "When you go on the ward with the dogs it's like the dogs are here the dogs are here and they run to them," Cole said. And it isn't only beneficial for patients.

"It can be a high stress environment sometimes and just having animals around can alleviate some of that stress that people feel," Training and Development coordinator Ginny Moorer-Shields said. "They're miracles," Cole said.

The therapy program also uses several horses and cats to help with treatment.

Each animal is screened by a vet to make sure they're suitable.

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