Mclean Hospital

Puppy Love: Therapy Dogs Help Patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

April 1, 2013

You may be surprised to know that two of the most important members of the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Institute (OCDI) staff don’t know a thing about the treatment of OCD. In fact, this dynamic duo has never been to college, has no formal training in behavioral therapy, and has never even read a single book about OCD treatment. How can two members of the OCDI staff be so unqualified yet effective in their endeavors?

Pet therapy
Merlin & Pendergast sit with Henry and Annie, two unique members of the OCDI team

Despite not having any formal university education, both Annie and Henry have graduated from the Dog B.O.N.E.S. program: Dogs Building Opportunities for Nurturing and Emotional Support. Dog B.O.N.E.S. is a Massachusetts non-profit, volunteer organization whose primary purpose is to provide well-trained, affectionate, and obedient dogs for a variety of therapeutic settings.

Those who have experienced treatment at the OCD Institute will tell you that the OCDI staff will go to almost any length to enhance and optimize the treatment of our patients. Proud owners Emily Pendergast, community residence counselor at the Institute, and Perrie Merlin, LICSW, OCDI social worker, enthusiastically pursued having their dogs trained and certified to be able to provide valuable therapeutic support to patients in treatment at the OCD Institute.

Annie and Henry have both made themselves right at home, adding some comfort and the familiarity of home for patients during an otherwise overwhelming and intense yet incredibly rewarding experience in their lives. Both dogs have a strong presence at the Institute several days each week and their arrival at North Belknap 1 and Orchard House is eagerly anticipated by many OCDI patients. During their time on the units, they are able to provide support to OCDI patients in a variety of ways—emotional support to patients missing pets at home, an engaging, lively outlet for free time that may otherwise be co-opted by rumination, isolation, or other OCD rituals, and even a direct opportunity for exposure work for some patients whose OCD symptoms may be triggered by their presence.

“Henry often allows people to relax, lower their defenses, and show their softer side in family meetings,” says Merlin, “sometimes much sooner than one would expect.”

Pendergast adds, “Annie often joins me in check-ins with patients, providing an extra level of comfort. She helps to ground the patient and bring them back to the present moment. She often seems to literally ‘sniff-out’ someone in need, often before even I can.”

Jennifer Loomis, a recent patient at the OCDI, recollects one memorable evening with Annie on the unit: “For a moment in time, all of us were unaware of the fact we had OCD. We were absorbed in the new-found friendship that Annie so freely gave. The loving pats, a few wet kisses, and lots of tail-wagging reminded me of Tasha, my own dog at home, and gave me the incentive I needed to continue with this new adventure of treatment that would soon lead me home, where my own tail-wagging friend patiently awaited my return.”