Has Addiction Treatment Gone to the Dogs?

Vienna, Jack and Finn are siblings who live and work together. Vienna and Jack are brindle-colored with bright, alert eyes that smile up at everyone they meet. Finn is a handsome black-and-tan with a constantly wriggling tail and huge paws that he offers to friends and strangers alike. All three are walking cheerfully down the hall of the medical center – calm and well-trained not to pull on their collars and leashes. Bedecked in multi-colored bandanas, all eyes are drawn to them when Vienna announces their presence with a short, low “woof!” Card games stop, the dayroom TV goes silent, and staff members lay down their charts and pens – the therapy dogs are here!

Animal-assisted therapy has its roots in years past when it became quite normal to see dogs, cats and fluffy friends like rabbits in hospital corridors and dayrooms. Their influence in helping patients of all ages and conditions feel less lonely and frightened in medical settings has been thoroughly documented. Vienna, Jack and Finn, however, aren’t pet visitation animals; they are trained and internationally-certified therapy dogs – a very different sort of visitor!

Therapy Animals

Therapy animals are born, not made. They either “have it” or they don’t; and if they don’t, no amount of training will instill it into them. The three therapy dogs visiting the alcohol and other drug addiction detoxification and treatment center today have this elusive “it.” This is an uncanny affinity with people in distress – physical or emotional. Somehow, because of their deep love and sense of bonding with humans, therapy animals instinctively gravitate towards people who need just the sort of understanding and healing ability that only the love of a dog can provide. There are ten more mini-Dachshunds in these visitors’ pack; six are retired therapy dogs, and four just don’t “have it” but are still beloved by the pack and their humans. Gunther, the pack’s Alpha male, is an accomplished therapy dog who has helped trained the youngster upstarts – including Oskar, the newest therapy dog in training at age eight months old. Oskar, a rescued Dachshund from a home where he was unwanted, “has it.”

Jack, the eldest of the three, is in charge today. After a few minutes of schmoozing with the staff at the front desk of the inpatient unit, he leads Vienna and Finn into the comfortable dayroom where the patients in the group therapy session greet them with smiles, hand claps, and soft calls: “C’Mere Vienna! How’s my girl today?” “I get dibs on Finn!” But someone has caught Jack’s eye; over there, sitting by herself in the corner, see that girl? She looks like she’s been crying, and she’s so young. Only in her early 20’s, the girl seems out of place in the noisy dayroom and she’s said not a word. Jack hesitates. Is he welcome? He and the girl lock eyes and the question is resolved by her soft look. While Vienna and Finn enjoy a few rowdy, playtime moments with the group, Jack slowly approaches the girl, who tentatively reaches her hand towards the little dog.  Jack nudges her hand with his gentle, wet nose and right then and there, the bond is formed. During the girl’s first group therapy session in the addiction treatment center, Jack lays stretched out at her feet, his head across her foot. Still silent, Christine tries out the first glimmer of a smile since she was admitted to the center three days ago after suffering severe seizures from a meth overdose. Jack never moves.

While Jack, Finn, Vienna, Gunther, Oskar and their pack members are special dogs, they aren’t unusual or uncommon dogs, especially in addiction rehabilitation centers. They go about their work with great good cheer, but also with dedication and concentration; they take their jobs every bit as seriously as the medical staff and addiction counselors take their own. The dogs are relaxed and comfortable among people whom society may have negatively labeled.  Most have criminal histories – drug and alcohol offenses, usually. Many have been rejected by friends and families. All are afraid.

Group is over, and it’s time to say farewell. Heads are scratched, ears are smoothed, hugs are squeezed – even a few wet kisses are exchanged. As Jack leads his team to the door, he turns and slowly waves his tail at Christine. “I’ll be back,” his soft eyes tell her. And unlike so many others in her life, Christine knows he will be.