Podcast: How Jeff Fink and His K-9 Friend Earl Promote Animal Therapy

Through this podcast, you will meet our host Trevor, who in addition to working at McLean, also knows a thing or two about living with mental health challenges. With Trevor as our moderator, he will guide us through up close and personal conversations with clinicians, advocates, celebrities, and ordinary people who have extraordinary stories to share.

Along the way, you’ll also get to know Trevor, as he opens up about his own experiences with mental illness, growing up in a Native American household, and traveling the globe as a documentary filmmaker.

In this week’s episode, Trevor introduces you to Jeff, whose experience with mental illness led him on a long journey that finally ended with him being paired with his service dog, Earl.

Jeff talks about how his life with Earl led to his founding of Go Fetch Wellness, an organization dedicated to integrating animals into a whole-person approach to mental health treatment.

Episode Transcript

Trevor: Okay. Well, here we are. The very first podcast, trial run. Again, my name’s Trevor. You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. Let me give you a bit of background on me. I’m 42 years old. I was born in California, but raised in New England. I wanted to be a filmmaker my entire life, went to film school in Keene, New Hampshire, in the late ‘90s, went to digital film school in Massachusetts around 2006, and have been trying to be a filmmaker ever since then. And I’ve made a living at it, but my career has not gone the way I’ve wanted it to go, and that’s fine. A lot of that has to do with things not lining up, but mostly I feel like I’ve been held back by how much time and resources it takes to treat my mental illness. So I am mentally ill. I have borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and I have extreme depression. I have been diagnosed with all three of these things.

I was a former patient here at McLean Hospital. I did the outpatient program twice. It helped me a lot, and it got me into a therapy group here called DBT, dialectical behavioral therapy. Let’s see when I was in here last, it was maybe four years ago. And since then, I really have to spend a lot of time daily on my mental illness. A lot of resources are dedicated to it, a lot of time.

So part of my therapy is letting emotions go, figuring out if there are any cognitive distortions before I process my emotions, because if there are cognitive distortions present, and if I’ve acknowledged them, then that will re-contextualize my emotions, and help the situation more, because that’s one thing. This mental illness thing, at least for me, in my case, is not going away. That’s just ... There’s no cure. I’ve accepted that. Maybe one will magically come down the road, but I don’t know. I doubt it. Me personally, it’s day-to-day management.

And that’s what I want these openings to really be about, is not just talking to you about my problems, but I think it’s important that, if we’re going to deconstruct the stigma of mental health, we also should deconstruct the stigma around therapy. I know a lot of people with mental health issues that are just afraid to enter into therapy because of what they’ve seen or what they’ve read. And in some ways, I get that, but I don’t know. As somebody who’s been in therapy for 20 years now, it’s just work. That’s really ... Not for everybody, but for a lot of people, it’s just work. Day-to-day commitment to exercising these tools. And for a lot of people, including myself, staying on a regular medication regimen.

And so I think, by sharing with you guys the ... From week to week, what I’m using from DBT, what I’m using for my medication, what I’ve used from therapy ... If I talk to you guys about those tools I have to be disciplined about using, then maybe that’ll help some people finally commit to therapy, because therapy is really not the horror show that it’s been made out to be in books and movies and ... And not just the arts. Just the general stigma, that it’s really not that. It’s not any different from anything else that you need to be committed and disciplined to.

I mean, I hate to say it’s like going to the gym, but it is. You establish your schedule, and you stick to it. Meds got to be taken at this time. I need to be asleep by this time. I need to be awake by this time. And boy, I fall off all the time. All the time. I fall off. Days, weeks, sometimes months, but I always ... I’m lucky. I always manage to get back on the therapy train, because at the end of the day, that’s it. That’s all I have anyways. It’s the only thing that’s going to help. Nobody, no one person, no material possession, none of that’s going to help. Just the therapy. That’s it.

That’s what we’re going to do from week to week. And in that process, I’m going to reveal a lot about myself. We’re going to get deep. We’re going to get dark. And I’m okay with that. Am I afraid? I’m terrified, but I feel that if I just talk about myself and my problems, it’ll just be ... It would just be very arrogant. It would be masturbatory. I want to make it about me, but if I make it about my therapy, then within the context of me discussing the details of my therapy, you’ll understand what I’m going through, and you’ll understand the process, and maybe start your own process. And maybe start your own path, if you feel that you need it. And then of course, there’s going to be interviews.

So, for our very first podcast, we have a rather fun interview lined up. On the podcast will be Jeff. He runs a group called Go Fetch Wellness, and their mission statement is incorporating animals to promote mental wellness and recovery. Jeff has a really interesting story, how he came to create Go Fetch Wellness, and a special animal that he has in his life, his own battles with mental illness, and how a dog named Earl changed things around for him. And I definitely relate. I got a cat a few years ago. You’ll hear me talk about this in the podcast, and it changed a lot of things for me, for the better. When you’re depressed and stuck in bed and can’t get out of it, it seems okay that you go hungry and not even go to the next room to get something to eat, but it’s not okay when you have an animal that depends on you, and that animal definitely gets me out of bed. So yeah. Here we are with Jeff. Enjoy.

Jeff: I think that weather and environment certainly affects our mood in different ways, some for the positive and some for the negative. And for me, I could be ... Some people may love Florida and being on the beach, and it’s 97 degrees and humid. That would be a big trigger for me. So ...

Trevor: Why is that?

Jeff: Because the heat is just ... I’ve never been comfortable when it’s super hot outside —

Trevor: Yeah, me too. I can’t deal with it.

Jeff: Yeah. I just don’t like to feel hot. I’d rather feel cold. I feel like I’m more energized with the cold. I mean, certainly not minus 30 below cold, but just being able to layer up and get warm that way versus I’m dressed up and I’m soaked in sweat because it’s so humid. And big reason why I like to travel and be in more dry climates.

Trevor: Right. I just read, really quickly, this study that came across a feed. And I want to read about it more in depth, about how swimming in cold water helps people with severe depression. I don’t know. I hate swimming in cold water, but...

Jeff: Yeah, no. There’s definitely studies out there showing ... Going from hot to cold, you can even do it in a shower. Take a hot shower, turn it to cold, turn it back to hot, to cold, what that does for people’s metabolism. And I don’t ... I can’t explain how it treats their depression, but maybe it’s just like jump in a cold plunge pool, and that shock of that cold helps get you out of wherever you’re at in terms of if you’re feeling stuck or exhausted or whatever that expression of depression is for you.

Trevor: Right. Before Earl, were you ever an outdoors person? Did you go on ... And I’m talking ... Not hikes. I mean, did you even just go on walks?

Jeff: Yeah. So walking and hiking was always one of the only ways I could get relief during episodes of depression. So for a while, I couldn’t run. I used to run a lot. Hurt my back, so I had severe back pain for several years, to where the only thing I could do for some relief would be to walk. So I walked, but I walked alone. And so when I passed people on trails, and when I passed people in the woods or at a park, I wasn’t talking to them. So I was still stuck in my head and in my thoughts. And so being outside in nature and walking and the fresh air was helpful, certainly helped lift my mood a little bit, but I was missing that social connection. That’s where Earl came in to play. It’s hard to pass any dog lover without them saying, “Oh, can we pet your dog?” Or, “What type of dog is that, and how old is he? And what breed is he?” And everything else. And so it’s been a really nice addition to that ... What I’ve already always enjoyed, which is being out in nature.

Trevor: Do you find it difficult, or did you find it difficult before you had Earl as the middle man, for lack of a better phrase, to just acknowledge somebody as you walked by them? Like a hello or anything? Is that something you just wouldn’t do at all?

Jeff: I mean, it’s hard to say because illness has manifested in different ways for me. So if I was really sick and it had been months and months and months before I had interacted with someone, maybe I would try to avoid people on a trail, or I wouldn’t look at them so I wouldn’t have to say hi, or do a fake smile, but I’ve actually always felt energized by strangers. Now, that’s strangers out in nature versus at a cocktail party or at a big event with hundreds of people. So I would typically speak to strangers, even at my worst of times, because it was not ... There wasn’t a history. They didn’t know who I was. They didn’t expect me to be overly outgoing, if that’s who people from home might have assumed I was always talkative and happy, and let’s go, and high energy. And so if I was really down or monotone and just in pain, a stranger wouldn’t see that. And so it gave me the opportunity to try to just connect with someone.

Trevor: That’s interesting because sometimes, not all the time ... Sometimes, I find it much easier to communicate with strangers because I have a clean slate with them. So maybe a party filled with strangers ... Sometimes, not all the time, but a party full of strangers, as opposed to a party full of friends or people I know, can actually be easier because the people I know, there’s expectations of what they know of me, what they think they know of me. I’ve got to be that, and sometimes I just don’t have the energy for it.

To get back to the hiking thing, that’s really amazing because I found a management plan, for the most part, for my mental illness, but I still can’t find the energy to go out for a walk, to go hiking, to have that connection with nature. And I know it’s important. Just haven’t gotten there yet, and I want to get there soon.

Jeff: You can get a dog.

Trevor: Yeah. I think I’m going to have to get a dog.

Jeff: I mean, it makes it easier when you’ve got ... When you’re caring for something outside of yourself. And it’s certainly not for everyone, and that was a blanket recommendation. Go get a dog, but I think in time, after you’ve made sure that your life, your housing, your finances are in a place where you can get a dog, and your work schedule allows for you to be able to care for the dog in the way that you would want to care for a loved one, but it really is such a motivator for people that say that it’s difficult for them to get out and walk or do that kind of outdoor activity by themselves. I mean, it’s ... If I don’t have Earl with me on a given day, and I’m walking around, it doesn’t have the same effect for me. I mean, I do get that endorphin boost from the exercise, but it doesn’t have the same effect that ... of that connection with others, and having him, and that live being to be watching out for while we’re walking.

Trevor: Can you elaborate more? Maybe open up a bit more on that effect? The effect that Earl’s presence just gives you?

Jeff: Yeah. I mean, Earl’s presence keeps me in the present. So by having Earl at the other end of the leash, I’m watching him. I’m seeing where is he going to sniff, and what is he trying to pick up off the ground that he shouldn’t, and what’s he trying to roll in that he shouldn’t be rolling in, because he loves to roll in nasty things. That’s Earl’s ... Earl and a lot of other golden retrievers, they just ... It’s something, they love to coat themselves with the smelliest thing possible. But all of those experiences are keeping me focused on him and not on whatever stress I’m dealing with for the day, or mood shifts I’m experiencing. So it’s really ... Until you are caring for a dog or volunteering and walking an animal, it’s hard to explain just how powerful that connection is, because really, we’re always searching for meditation, yoga. How do we breathe? How do we stay in the present? How do we not focus on the future and the past and rev up anxiety? And I think it’s just a wonderful thing to be able to have a companion animal by your side.

Trevor: So I want to get into the groundwork for Go Fetch Wellness. So prior to being set up with Earl, you were treatment resistant?

Jeff: Yeah. When I talk about treatment resistant, I’m talking about the medical model of treatment. So I’m talking specifically about medications. Medications did not provide the relief for my symptoms that they do for a lot of others. So in my many, many trials of most of the medications available, and combinations, and retrying the same medication in a different combination, it just wasn’t working for me. I couldn’t tolerate the side effects, or they made my condition worse, or they didn’t treat what they were trying to, but ... So that’s what I talk about as treatment resistant. I mean, I think if we look at the definition of that, it’s a failure of two, some people say four, medications or more. A lot of people that are starting and taking psychiatric medications will cycle through one or two or three medications before they find one that works. So, by definition, are they treatment resistant? Maybe, but I think that when you get into 60, 70 combinations of medications, then you’re certainly in a different world of treatment resistance.

Trevor: Where were you ... I’m not talking about your illness, but where were you emotionally before ... Right before Earl? Were you empty? Maybe hopeless? Was the sadness and the depression just, was it at its peak?

Jeff: Well, right before Earl, I was actually doing better. I had come out of what had been close to four years of an episode, where I was not doing well at all during that entire time.

Trevor: Four years?

Jeff: Four years. And so that was one of the toughest. I mean, it’s hard to compare different episodes and what they felt like and how extreme they were, because you could experience a bad day now, and it would feel just as bad as maybe three years into an episode. But it was a majority of four years where there was not much relief except for those times where I might have walked in the evening, because moods for me were certainly horrible through the early part of the day, and I didn’t sleep much at all. So getting ... The sun’s coming up and you haven’t fallen asleep yet is never a good feeling, especially when you’re not excited and charged to tackle the day.

But as I was coming out of that episode and leaving Colorado, where I was living for the past seven years, and heading back to the east coast to the south, where I’m from, in Georgia, I was feeling more hopeful, because my mood had lessened in terms of the depression and the severe anxiety. And I started to have some hope that hey, this can be different. Life can be a little different. So I was able to put things together enough to be able to call different places and figure out where I would get Earl, and start to figure out where I was going to live, and how I was going to care for him. And it really does take ... It takes some functioning to be able to add an animal to your life.

Trevor: So if you were, let’s say two, three years into the episode, I think what you’re saying is that you might not have had the motivation to reach out or research the program that would bring Earl to you.

Jeff: Exactly. I wouldn’t have had the motivation. I wouldn’t have the concentration. I wouldn’t have had the energy. I wouldn’t ... Indecisiveness was plaguing me daily, and that’s very common with mood disorders, is you can’t ... If you knew what would help you feel better, you’d make that decision, but you can’t make decisions, or at least for me, I couldn’t make decisions. So I wouldn’t have been able to get from that point to getting a dog. And so that’s part of ... And we’ll get into Go Fetch Wellness, but that’s part of what I help people do now, is help them navigate those more difficult decisions, and ask them questions to help me guide them in a direction of what kind of animal is it? Is it a dog? Is it a cat? Is it a guinea pig? Is it a horse? And from there, help make sure to set them up for success as best I can.

Trevor: So I want you to take me through the step-by-step process of meeting Earl but before we do that, for the audience listening, I want to describe Earl. What does he look like?

Jeff: Earl is what’s called an English cream, and American golden retriever. So his mom is an American golden, the typical long, flowing, golden retriever that most people think of when they think of goldens. And his father is an English cream golden, so tall, longer, narrow, and really light-colored, almost like cream or white. Earl’s about 70 pounds. He’s got a big head, almost looks like a lab. Many people think he’s a lab, but goldens have longer hair. And he’s got some nice blond eyelashes, and he’s just a sweet boy that is just a ball of fluff.

Trevor: He has a hell of a tail.

Jeff: He’s got a wild tail. He’s got a really big tail. We don’t ... Can’t have anything on any coffee tables around him, or he will knock everything off there, but yeah. He’s just a sweet dog, but he certainly looks a little different from most goldens.

Trevor: What’s his most unique personality trait?

Jeff: He’s a smiler, so he has what’s called a submissive grin. And to others that have never seen that, it looks like he’s about to eat them, because he just smiles, and his lips go up, and his teeth are showing, and he’s snorting, and he’s ... So it’s a whole combination of a big grin and a snort noise, and so it’s pretty hilarious.

Trevor: I saw it for my first time yesterday, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was, for lack of a better word, joyous. It gave me joy to see it.

Jeff: I’m glad to hear that, because it gives a lot of people fear, even the animal lovers that have had dogs. There’s —

Trevor: Well, you had given it context right away. You had said, “Oh, that’s him smiling.” Had you not been there to give me the content, maybe I would have reacted differently, but you were like, “Oh, there he is, smiling.” And it was really something to see.

Jeff: Yeah. It was really nicely timed as well. It was at the end of the presentation, and he was ... He gets really excited after a talk. That’s when I let people interact with him, and I take his vest off, and he gets to be a dog, and gets to play, and share his love with others, which is what a therapy dog would do. And so instead of being a service dog in that moment, he was providing some affection for those in the audience. And so he hears, as soon as he hears any kind of applause or closure of a talk, he is up from a deep sleep, and he’s ready to do his thing.

Trevor: Yeah. For the listeners, Jeff did a presentation here yesterday at McLean, and it was excellent. Did a presentation, and Earl was present, and it went off really well. It was really great. Thanks again for doing that.

Jeff: Yeah. It was really ... We had a standing room only, so that was really ... It was a great, great crowd. And a lot of good feedback I’ve gotten afterwards in terms of people being able to relate to different parts of my story. And the unique thing is I’ll get emails or messages through social media about ... From clinicians, from people that are working the field of mental health, that aren’t typically open about their challenges. And certainly anything that’s said to me stays confidential, but they’ll say that was really helpful to hear that, because yes, my job is super stressful, and I wish I could tell people about the anxiety I experience, or feeling helpless when I can’t get a client or a patient feeling better. And so I think it’s nice to be able to offer the message for both the clinical side as well as those that are experiencing symptoms.

Trevor: So let’s get to the meat of it. Tell me how Earl came into your life, and how that set the ball rolling regarding Go Fetch Wellness.

Jeff: So Earl came into my life based out of ... It’s hard to remember where the suggestion came from to get a dog, but it was maybe a therapist, maybe a coach who knows what it was, a friend said, “Why don’t you get a dog? They can help you in so many ways.” And I said, “I can’t get a dog. I don’t care for myself. I’m not able to even remember to eat or drink water or exercise, or I’m not sleeping, and I don’t have any housing,” or whatever it might be, but really, I decided ... I tried so many other things. I’ve tried both evidence-based treatments and medications and therapies to more of what is referred to as out-of-the-box or non-traditional interventions. And so I said, “What do I have to lose?” So I started researching golden retrievers. I always loved that dog. I mean, when felt at my worst, I saw a golden, and they would be smiling, and they’d be wagging their tails, and it just gave me that lighter feeling.

And so I found ... I wanted to meet the parents. So certainly, I believe in working with rescue animals and shelter dogs and know a lot more about that now, but I wanted to find a dog through a breeder so I could level the playing field, because I knew that I wanted to train him eventually as a service dog. And so I wanted to be able to find a dog that was easy to train, or easier to train. And so knowing his background and being able to see the personality of his parents is sometimes helpful to getting a puppy. And so I got him, and the story from there was that we were living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at the time, and I started to train him as a service dog, which means you take your dog places that pets aren’t allowed, like grocery stores and movie theaters and restaurants, and so people just started talking to me and asking me about Earl and sharing about their animals.

And as I started opening up more about my own illness, and he’s a psychiatric service dog in training, and people just ... I mean, I would say almost four out of five people would have some kind of story, whether it was of themselves or a loved one or a friend that’s experienced some type of mental illness where they were able to ... where they had a story of how their animals had helped them. And so that’s when I decided really something more has to be done to bring this into mainstream treatment. It doesn’t just have to be a 10-minute pet of a therapy dog, if you’re lucky enough to be in the hospital at that time. Not saying you’re ever lucky to be in the hospital, but lucky enough, if you’re in the hospital and the therapy dog comes by, but to being ... How do we get people really introduced to the human animal bond? And if they start to see the same success and experiences I was getting from that, let’s try to build on that, just as we would if we found a medication that worked for someone. We’re not going to take it away from them. We’re going to use that as one of the tools to their recovery journey.

Trevor: I’ve talked to a few people outside of McLean about Go Fetch Wellness, and their first question is always, “Psychiatric service dog? How can you train a dog to be a psychiatric service dog?”

Jeff: It’s a great question. I mean, you ... First, you train the dog to be a dog, to be a well-trained dog. So it’s just like your ... If you’re training your pet, and I like to refer to a pet as a companion animal. Most people understand the term pet, but to me it sounds a little like you are in charge or the owner of that animal, versus a companion animal is your partner. So I think it’s basic obedience, sit, stay, those types of commands that our companion animals learn. And then it’s more advanced training, and some dogs intuitively can pick up on you getting agitated, or you getting depressed, or you about to have a panic attack. And you can start to train them to intervene, to stop that from happening.

So, for example, we see a lot of dogs working with veterans, and PTSD is a very common condition that veterans are struggling with, along with many other people as well. And so one of the things I’ve seen that’s been really successful is these dogs can orient themselves behind someone. And so if you’re walking in a grocery store with your service dog, and you’re in a line and you’re about to check out, instead of having to be hyper-vigilant about who’s coming up behind you and on the side, the dog is there to get their back. And so the dog will paw at their leg, so that gives the person a chance to say, “I know my dog’s got my back, so I don’t ... I can relax a little around that.”

Dogs also can be trained to put pressure on you. So they can put the weight of their body onto your chest and help you regulate after or during a panic attack. Certainly they can open doors and blinds and pull covers off and turn lights on, things that are helpful if you’re just unable to get out of bed that day or that week or however long it might be. And they can motivate you to get outside, because as you start to bond with your dog, you want to help them, as bad as you might feel.

Trevor: You have to help them.

Jeff: You have to. I mean, otherwise they’re going to go to the bathroom inside.

Trevor: Or they’re going to starve if you —

Jeff: Or they’re going to starve. And so it’s that ... But it’s that little bit of ... It’s like okay, now we’re outside. Wow, it’s a brisk, Massachusetts winter day. Oh, now I actually feel a little better. Let me take a walk. Let me get to the mailbox. Let me get down the block. And then you find yourself walking a mile or two miles. And then maybe the rest of the day is not as bad as it would have been had you not had that animal to motivate you to get out.

Trevor: Right. I have a cat. I’ve had a cat for three years. Never wanted a cat. Never wanted an animal. Period. I even lived with an ex for two years, and we had two cats, and it’s not that I hated the cats. I just ... They brought me a lot of anxiety just living with them. I got the cat that I have now ... It’s a long story, I’m not going to go into it, and huge change for me. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time in bed. I’ve spent ... I think my longest in bed was three weeks. I think three weeks in bed. And the cat ... I mean, the cat’s got to eat. The cat needs its litter box changed. And I got to get up. And it makes all the difference. And every night before bed, the cat gets on my chest and sleeps for half an hour. That has to happen. She’s basically like that has to happen. And it helps me so much. No matter how tired I am, I set aside that half an hour every night for her to come and sleep on my chest. And it’s just great.

About two years ago, when I first got to San Diego, I went through probably my worst bout with potential suicide. And if it wasn’t for that cat, I don’t know. I mean, I’m not going to say if it wasn’t for the cat, I wouldn’t be here. I’m just saying I don’t know. I don’t know. I think at the end of the day, I couldn’t leave that cat. That cat needed me, and I need her. And now, that cat is my everything. Everything.

Jeff: What’s her name?

Trevor: Her name’s Newt. I named her after the little girl from the movie Aliens. Newt, in the movie, came from a very traumatized experience. And Newt, my cat, came from abuse. So the first three months were very rough. And I happened to be unemployed at the time. I had left my job, and I had some money, so I took some time. And that was good because when I got her, she was an emotional wreck. I couldn’t feed her without her vomiting immediately. So every three hours, I would have ... Even at night, I would have to wake up and hand feed her a little bit by ... Just by hand, a little bit. Just a little bit of food so she wouldn’t throw up, and just get her to relax. And about six months in, she just turned right around. I mean, she’s lovely. She’ll come right up to you, want to be pet, and stuff like that. But now, she has confidence, and she’s got a hell of a personality. And when she’s not happy, she makes it clear that she’s not happy. And it’s my responsibility to address that.

She has ... Obviously, I’ve laid down some ground rules. Don’t go up on the dinner table, okay? But she’s laid down some ground rules. I don’t like being pet this way. I like being pet this way. She’s taught me to get out of my own head, and to respect her limits. And because I do, she respects mine. I mean, maybe for listeners, that sounds crazy. And I don’t know what to say, but that’s just how it works between us.

Jeff: I think ... I mean, I think your story that you’ve shared with Newt is ... about her is a beautiful one, and I think that there’s several points that you’ve made that come to mind first. All types of species of animals can help provide emotional support. So people think dogs, they think cats maybe second, or maybe equal to if you’re a cat person, so don’t get upset with me if you’re listening. But there’s other animals as well. There’s guinea pigs, there’s chickens, there’s horses, there’s —

Trevor: The photo of the pig that you showed yesterday in your presentation. That pig was —

Jeff: Bacon Bits.

Trevor: Yeah. Bacon Bits, the pig.

Jeff: From New York.

Trevor: Yeah. He’s adorable.

Jeff: He’s a great, great, great pig. It makes me want to get a pig. I’m just not ready for that yet, but you also talked about people think, “Oh, well you have a purebred golden retriever. I just want to get a ...” They’ll describe their rescue animal is a mutt or a rescue cat or whatever it might be, but you’re describing a cat that came to you with her own trauma that wasn’t the easiest to work with at first and to bond with, and you had to really work for that, but it was effective for you. And so it’s part of ... What I tell people is there is so much more to animals than getting that dog or that other animal that you think it going to be just the perfect specimen so you can have your service dog or whatever it might be, that you really can learn from these relationships with animals that have been through trauma, can help people relate and understand their own trauma and their own insecurities and anxieties.

So I just ... I thought that was beautiful story as well. And I think cats are also, for some, sometimes a better starting point than a dog, because they do take a little less in terms of care. They’ve got a litter box. They can stay inside for longer, if you’re gone at work for eight, 10 hours a day. But when you come home, and you have that moment where she’s like, “You’re not getting out of this snuggle time,” that is ... even if you’re tired, I bet that purring and having her on your chest and snuggling with you lets the worries of the day melt away, and maybe not completely take them away, but it certainly is better than not having her.”

Trevor: I got a new game last night, a new video game, that I was so excited to play. And I had installed it, loaded it up, got five minutes into it, and she hopped on my lap. She’s like, “No. This is lap time. We do this every night. So put down that controller, and let’s do this.” And if I don’t do it, she doesn’t swipe at me with her claws. She’s too sweet, but she’ll just get up on her hind legs and smack me with the pads of her paws and just be like come on, man. This is our schedule. This is our thing.

Jeff: Yeah. She’s not going to let you —

Trevor: No.

Jeff: And she knows it’s good for you too, so she’s —

Trevor: Absolutely. The important thing with Newt is that she came to me, her emotional needs were greater than mine, and that was exactly what I needed because I needed to get out of my own head. I needed to get out of my own world that ... I have narcissistic personality disorder. It doesn’t mean that I’m super arrogant. What it means is that my problems just inform everything, my whole life. And I needed to get out of that. And that cat and her needs, what she needed at that time, that’s what did it.

Jeff: That’s great. What I love hearing, and something ... It’s a new initiative we started with Go Fetch Wellness, and it’s called Fetching Stories. Of course, keeping with the Go Fetch theme, and Fetching Stories is all about people’s stories of health, wellness, and recovery alongside their companion animals. Of course, it could be any species of animals. And so we’re going to start sharing those stories, where it’s a picture of let’s say Newt or Earl, and it could be a picture of the person and their animal, but I think a lot of people are more comfortable sharing a picture of their companion animal, and then a short story about here’s ... Exactly what you have just said would be a perfect Fetching Story.

So for any of our listeners out there, if that’s something you’re interested in, what I think it can do is it can help on a variety of fronts. It helps us share our story, and get that out there for people that aren’t on a podcast or speaking in front of people and talking about their mental health struggles, but it also helps other people that are reading the stories realize that maybe they are experiencing some mental health spectrum of a challenge, or maybe they can reexamine their relationship with their companion animal at home and say, “Hey. This is really ... I might be a successful corporate person, but when I come home, and I’m tired of running a company for the day, and I come home and I get to hang out with Newt or Earl, or whatever your animal is, and I just feel the stress dissipate for that moment.”

Those are the stories I want to see, because I think it will help us end stigma, or deconstructing stigma, these campaigns to end stigma, to get people to realize that we’re not that different from one another. And so that’s what I’m really hoping for with Fetching Stories.

Trevor: Do me a favor. Before we continue on, can you plug the website and whatever email address?

Jeff: Yeah. So it’s just ... Well, you would find Fetching Stories through the Go Fetch Wellness website. So just gofetchwellness.com. If you did a forward slash fetchingstories, or if you just go to the homepage, there will be a button on the top that says, “Share your story,” and it will bring up a little forum for you to fill out. And email address is just @email. We also have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, but of course, me being in charge of all social media and not really enjoying it myself and not being 15 years younger, we’re always looking for someone that really wants to help out with our social media. So if you’re out there and this rings true to you, please connect with us, because we need you.

Trevor: I’m the same way, man —

Jeff: Yes —

Trevor: I can’t do it.

Jeff: It’s just ... I think it’s a helpful way ... It’s a way that people get their information. Certainly younger people. I think we’re closer to the same age. We’re not going to date ourselves on the podcast today. For everyone out there, we’re very young. But —

Trevor: Very young.

Jeff: Very.

Trevor: Very young.

Jeff: But when I speak to someone that’s 19 or 22 or 15, they are plugged in to social media, and so if that’s where they’re getting their information, then we have to be out there sharing our information.

Trevor: Right. And this is for myself personally, I’m going through a phase right now where I’m aware of my triggers, but I got to do some exposure therapy. I can’t let all of my triggers hold me back. At the same time though, I mean, there are triggers, and then for me, there’s social media. Man. I do Facebook to keep in touch with some friends and family. Everything else, I can’t do it.

Jeff: Well, I think social media’s even difficult on those younger folks that I’m talking about as well, because it’s a snapshot. Let’s take a picture in front of our food or on our vacation, and you never know what happens before or after that picture, what fight happened or what ... Did you lose your luggage at the ...? I mean, all these things. Those aren’t making social media. It’s the good pictures. So it’s like putting our best image out there. But I think social media can be used for good as well, and what we’re talking about.

Trevor: Absolutely.

Jeff: And you don’t have to be on social media to share your story. You could simply email. I mean, you do have to have email capability. I guess, if not, if you need a mailing address, we can work that out as well, and actually write out your story and include a Polaroid, but I think most people could have an email address.

Trevor: Well, I’ll talk about Newt all damn day long, so if you want me to contribute, let me know. I’m in —

Jeff: For sure.

Trevor: I’m in. So at the moment you were going to start Go Fetch Wellness ... I mean, this is a big undertaking. How nervous were you? I assume there was doubt. Was there a lot of doubt? Were you sitting there like am I really going to do this? Or was it just ... Was it easy?

Jeff: Well, with me there’s always going to be doubt, whether I —

Trevor: That’s why I asked it.

Jeff: Whether I do this podcast, and then think about something I wanted to say differently, or I speak and it’s like oh, I forgot that. That was my main point and ... Even if someone says it was a great talk, whatever it was, there’s doubt. But Go Fetch Wellness evolved at the pace that I wanted and needed it to evolve. So it wasn’t like hey, here’s Go Fetch Wellness. We’ve got a five-thousand-square-foot office, and we’re ready to go, and we’ve put all this money in it. It was ... Go Fetch Wellness was, at first, it was for me. It was part of my recovery journey, because I started to be ... It helped me become more open about my mental illness. So Go Fetch Wellness at first was just having these casual conversations with strangers in places where I was bringing Earl, and he had his vest on, and I was educating people around service animals.

And then as that occurred, I started saying, “I want to visit people that are homebound.” So as I was getting better and more stable, I would go visit people that were not at the best part of their ... Experiencing a lot of mental health symptoms and unable to leave the house, or leave the treatment center or the hospital. And so I would go to them, because I feel like we haven’t been doing that with therapy animals. We haven’t been ... And at the time, Earl was working as a therapy animal because if I went to visit a client in their house, and Earl sat in their bed or by their bedside, or we sat out in the backyard or wherever it was, he was providing emotional support for them and therapy for them. So he ... just his presence.

So then, it was like ... kept thinking bigger picture, and I want to reach more people. So I was leading groups and psychoeducational groups alongside clinicians, and people would open up and share stories. And here’s what it was like when I was growing up, and I loved that dog I had, and we had a shepherd, and we had a pit bull. We had a Bichon or whatever it ... I mean, there was all types of animals. Or we had chickens or a fish tank. And I just started hearing so many stories of how these animals were helping people, that then it was like all right. Now, let’s bring this to the clinical world. Let’s get clinicians understanding the people that might be able to benefit from this. And let’s continue doing that and continue working with animals and talking about animals, but really talking about ourselves. So we would learn through animals.

And then from there, it’s where I’m at now, where I’m doing a lot of public speaking and traveling to different parts of the country, speaking at the top psychiatric hospital in the country, where people are coming, and very educated people that work here are coming and learning something, a little bit about animals, because certainly we don’t have all the research we want yet around how this is helping and why it’s helping. But we do have some, and I think that the more we get this out there for those that can provide research, that can take this ... integrate this into the medical model, that’s where we’re going to start seeing programs replicated, community-based programs for the underserved communities, where they’re starting to work with shelter animals. And we see it in prison programs now, and jails, where those that are incarcerated are caring and raising dogs to then place as service dogs with people not incarcerated, but it’s helping people in prisons contribute and feel a sense of being part of the community.

And I love that, and I just think that we can be doing that for mainstream mental health as well.

Trevor: Go Fetch Wellness, it seems to be quite an undertaking. And it was really impressive when I read all the information that you had on the site. When you started it, and all the way up to now, what ... To boil it all down, what is the direct objective of Go Fetch Wellness?

Jeff: To help people suffer less. It’s to not have anyone suffer to the degree that I have. I can speak from my own challenges, to help people look at the whole person, to realize that an animal can be a part of that whole-person puzzle, medication, a therapy, food, social connections, exercise. For people to see their recovery as a journey, not a destination, and to be able to find connection in another living being, and if it’s not a human being at first, let it be a non-human, or in my case, a dog.

Trevor: What future goals do you have for Go Fetch?

Jeff: The main future goal, and the consistent goal, is to see this type of treatment integrated into mainstream mental health treatment. So it’s to have a program at a hospital, at a large hospital like McLean or similar, where we’re starting to work with different groups of people with different populations, different diagnoses, even though I don’t like that ... I don’t like the labels, but that’s how treatment is still working. And to be able to say, “How can we let people experience a human-animal bond when they’re not ready for a dog? How do we help set them up for getting a dog or another animal when they are ready? And how do we help them continue to experience that partnership, and those benefits of that connection through the life of their companion animal?”

Trevor: What resistance have you experienced with Go Fetch? If any?

Jeff: It’s interesting. I’ve had sales jobs in the past, lots of resistance. I couldn’t even get in the door of a building to sell a product back in the day, but the resistance has been minimal. I think that really what will be needed is some funding behind these types of programs that we’re talking about, someone out there to say I have ... My animal saved my life, and I want to contribute to this. I want to contribute to research. I want to contribute to science. I want to contribute to making these programs available for those whether or not you’re of a lower socioeconomic status or the richest person in the world, because I think that it doesn’t matter the amount of money that someone has. Suffering is suffering, and I think that these animals can help ease that suffering.

Trevor: What is Earl doing right now? What is he doing?

Jeff: Earl is snoozing. He —

Trevor: He’s out, huh?

Jeff: Yeah. He learns to ... He learns when I’m talking, whether we’re in the middle of a mall or something, he’s like, “Oh, Jeff’s talking again. I’m going to take a nap.” He likes to conserve his energy so when we’re out an about, and we’re doing our four to six miles a day of walking, that he has the energy to keep up. But he is just resting comfortably here on the floor.

Trevor: And let me tell the listeners right now, this dog ... And this is no joke. This dog can command a crowd, and does it so easily. I saw ... This dog gets swarmed by ... I mean, at the end of your talk yesterday, I mean, about 30 people just built a big circle around him. And no problem. He worked the whole room. And it was really impressive.

Jeff: Yeah. He likes to ... Some people will get offended. If they’re the first up to him after a talk, and he’ll say a quick hello, his head will be facing the person, but then he likes to make sure every single person gets to see him once.

Trevor: Yes. I saw that —

Jeff: So he doesn’t stay with one person.

Trevor: Right.

Jeff: Because it’s almost like he knows that if he doesn’t get to that one person that really needs him to get there, then he hasn’t done his job. So he likes to trot around and swing his butt into people, and show off his teddy bear that he had. And yeah. He really enjoys it. And I think he knows that he’s ... I think he knows that the talk is about animals, and it’s about helping people, and I think he knows he’s that ambassador —

Trevor: Well, you said a specific word. You said something ... I think you used the word animals yesterday, and he perked right up off the floor and started walking around. And you actually had to tell him, “No, no, buddy.”

Jeff: Yeah. I put him back to bed.

Trevor: Yeah. Yeah.

Jeff: Sometimes if I say dog, he’ll pop up or something, or he thinks it’s ... If there’s an accidental clap or something midway through the talk, he’s popping up. He’s ready to go, but yeah. He’s very in tune. He can ... I almost think he can understand full sentences. I mean, we spend so much time together now, he knows what I’m saying. I don’t have to say, “Earl, sit.” I could just be talking, “Hey, Earl. We’re about to go on a walk,” and then he’s up, he’s ready, he’s at the door, he’s got his leash. He’s ready to go. So he’s actually dreaming now, so his feet are moving backwards and forwards.

Trevor: Jeff, is there anything you want to add before we wrap up?

Jeff: No. I think that ... I mean, we covered ... I think it’s important for people that are listening to ... if this rings true to you, take your time in the decision to get an animal.

Trevor: I agree.

Jeff: I say an animal, and I know many times I’ll continue saying dogs, because that’s really the animal that I focus on, the species that I focus on the most, but do what you can to connect with volunteer opportunities with a neighbor that has a dog, or if you’re into cats, go try to find some cats you can hang out with. And really do your research before getting an animal, because you want this to be a successful endeavor for you —

Trevor: Absolutely.

Jeff: And you want to have safeguards in place too. I mean, people can still experience symptoms when you have ... You could have your cat, or I could have Earl, and we could suffer from a depressive episode, or whatever it might be. So we need to have safeguards in place to say, “Who’s going to help with our animal?” Just as we would ... That’s why people make wills, and that’s why people plan ahead. So and it’s not for everybody. So if you’re listening and you’re ... and I don’t know if you’d be listening if you don’t like animals, but, depending on the title of the podcast, but if you’re listening and you’re like, “Well, I’m highly allergic to all animals,” maybe it’s not for you. But you can maybe set up a fish tank instead.

Trevor: Sure.

Jeff: Yeah.

Trevor: Absolutely. I know that with Newt, I was making a huge gamble, maybe even a reckless one, being a person with extreme depression taking on a traumatized cat. That was a huge gamble, but I had the time. I had six months to work with her, and I dedicated those six months to her. And if I did not have those six months, I don’t think she would have come around. And it would have been bad. So I guess I want to say for the listeners is that you might ... if you’re suffering, and you want to try getting an animal, I would aim to get one with an accessible personality at first, unless you have the time to work with an animal who has a little bit of trauma, because you can work through it, have them work through it. I did.

Jeff: Yeah. That’s a good point, is being able to have the time. So if you get a puppy, and you’re gone at work all day, unless you’re able to afford a trainer to come over and a dog walker —

Trevor: Or work from home or ... Right.

Jeff: Yeah, you could work from home. Maybe don’t get a puppy, maybe rescue a few-year-old dog that doesn’t need as much—

Trevor: Absolutely—

Jeff: One-on-one attention. So that’s a really good point about having the time, but no. This has been a really enjoyable podcast, the first time I’ve really been in a ... This is a great studio here, and a lot of the podcasts that I’ve done have been through Skype or through a phone call, and it’s easier to do in person when you’re looking at someone. And so thanks for having us on.

Trevor: Jeff, thank you so much. It was a real pleasure. Thank you.

Jeff: All right.

Trevor: Well, Deconstructing Stigma, the first podcast down. I hope you all enjoyed it, and I hope you’re all coming back. Please come back. You’re going to learn a lot. We’re going to have a lot of fun. Thank you for listening to Deconstructing Stigma. If you have any suggestions for special topics or future guests, please email us at @email. And don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, 877.870.4673. And you can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org.

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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.

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