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NEWS | Feb. 25, 2015

Therapy dog program takes bite out of mental health

By Senior Airman Jared Trimarchi Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Airmen from the 628th Medical Operations Squadron began a therapy dog program in December 2014, at Joint Base Charleston to reach out to military members by contributing to their well-being, boosting moral and promoting Mental Health Clinic services. 

The program was envisioned by Senior Airman Eric Bowen a 628th MDOS mental health technician, and Tech. Sgt. Jessica Meyer, 628th MDOS NCO in charge of the mental health element, and currently has two therapy dogs.

Lilly, an 8-year-old Australian Shepard belonging to Bowen, and Sookie, a 1-year-old Great Dane belonging to Meyer, went through the JB Charleston Veterinary Treatment Facility to complete therapy dog selection and training.

"Therapy dogs are used by the VA to help wounded veterans recover from their injuries and dogs in general have a unique way of helping people and boosting their spirits," said Bowen. "I wanted to bring a program here where dogs can help our service members cope with daily stressors."

Lilly and Sookie are used in one-on-one therapy sessions and as animal assisted activity dogs which provide mental health technicians an avenue to go to different units around the base while giving a face or wagging tail to the name Mental Health, said Bowen.

"As soon as people see Lily they can't help but smile," Bowen said. "Taking her around to different units gives us an opportunity to reach out to Airmen and tell them about our services. It gives me a chance to see their work environments, make a connection and tell them about preventative measures of life stressors."
According to Maj. Sonia Pons, 628th MDOS Mental Health flight commander, animal assisted activity through dogs has been around in the military since the 1960's. She also said, dogs who are embedded into units in theater help sooth central nervous system responses in military members.

"The purpose of therapy dogs is to predict and prevent stressors such as anxiety or depression, by providing people with an association they can relate to that's a part of nature which will not judge but accept them joyfully," Pons said.

The program has played a tremendous part of elevating the health of JB Charleston service members and spreading the message of preventive health, added Pons.

There has been an increase in visits, which were contributed to the therapy dogs.

"We have experienced a 50 percent increase of visits from a particular squadron due to the therapy dog program," Bowen said. "When service members were asked what brought them in to the clinic they responded with a visit from a therapy dog."

Units can schedule a therapy dog visit by contacting the Mental Health Clinic at 963-6852.