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NEWS | Dec. 6, 2016

Mental Health: Keeping things paw-sitive

By Airman 1st Class Megan Munoz Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Walking into the Mental Health Clinic can be unnerving for many patients. That is why Senior Airman Kasandra Groff enlisted the help of Sergeant Stoeger, a four year-old German shepherd. Stoeger, with a happily wagging tail, greets patients entering the clinic.

Groff, a 628th Medical Operations Group (MDOS) Mental Health Clinic mental health technician and Stoeger’s owner, recently began bringing Stoeger to the clinic each afternoon.

"He’s our personal security guard at home,” said Groff. “However, he also knows when to not be the security role; especially in the clinic. Stoeger is already getting a sense of what his primary role here is.” Groff says the dog is very loyal and attaches quickly to people who play with him.

Stoeger regularly receives obedience training from Groff while learning to perform duties as an assisted activity animal dog. Stoeger also receives training on special tricks such as balancing treats on his nose and playing dead. As an assisted activity animal dog, Stoeger is able to sit in on appointments when requested by patients and attend mental health immersions around base.

“We travel around the base to educate people and assess the mental health climates of different units,” said Maj. Sonia Pons, 628th MDOS Mental Health Clinic flight commander. “Bringing Stoeger facilitates communication by helping people feel at ease with mental health staff. People who love animals are usually very attracted to a dog providing us a good segue to discuss mental health.”

Stoeger is the second therapy dog to assist in the Mental Health Clinic. Sukie, a great dane, was the animal assisted activity dog from November 2014 to November 2015. Groff said seeing Sukie in the clinic inspired her to get a dog to enable the clinic to continue the animal assisted activity dog program.

Although Stoeger has only been coming into the Mental Health Clinic for two weeks, he has already made an impact on those around him.

"It's like having your best buddy here all day," said Staff Sgt. Max Rasmussen, a 628th MDOS Mental Health Clinic Alcohol Drug and Abuse Prevention Treatment program NCO in charge. “I think having therapy dogs in all the clinics across the Air Force should be more common.”

Because Stoeger is not a certified therapy dog, he is not able to comfort patients in hospitals. Groff says she is considering certifying him in the future.

“In the civilian world, any dog that goes into a clinic needs to be a certified therapy dog,” said Groff. “It is a month-long class and after completion, the animal is certified to meet with hospitalized patients. We are working on raising the funds because the certification class is expensive. It’s just additional training, but it has a high cost to it.” 

For those interested in working with Stoeger, he is available upon request for appointments or to visit an organization's office. For more information, contact the 628th Medical Operations Group (MDOS) Mental Health Clinic.