May is Mental Health Month: Spotlight on Animal Therapy

Thursday, May 8, 2014 - 9:45am

Guest blog by Mary Dell Harrington, co-founder of the parenting blog Grown and Flown.

Moose is my seven-year old chocolate Labrador and we are partners. While I hold one end of the leash, he goes to work: he leans in, patiently, delighting in the ear scratches and hugs that follow. It is not uncommon to watch him dissolve onto the floor for full-out belly rubs. We are a pet therapy team and this is how he comforts our clients, psychiatric patients at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York.

Before we began working there as volunteers, we were trained and certified by Pet Partners, a non-profit organization that has long promoted the health benefits of the “human-animal bond.” (You can learn more about Pet Partners on the ASPCA website. Our first class was a refresher obedience course and helped me gain better control over my then, still puppy-like, two-year-old dog. The second taught me about the professional protocol expected of a therapy team.

Every Monday we visit men and women whose health challenges include schizophrenia, depression, addiction and other mental illnesses. Those who call his name are delighted when he trots over, greeting them with a friendly, tail-wagging response. The broad smiles on every face in the community room reveal a general sense of contentment as I take a moment and stop to let each person stroke Moose’s back and velvet-like ears.

Enthusiastic greetings and smiles are outward signs that Moose’s visits are a source of happiness, if only momentarily. What is not visible but, perhaps, even more compelling are the deeper benefits that can come from animal therapy.

In an article published by CNN Health Hal Herzog, professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, says evidence suggests that for some people, interacting with pets produces biochemical changes in the brain. Psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman notes in the article that caring for a pet helps people become less frightened, more self-sufficient and secure.

To see additional photos of Moose and to learn more about our animal therapy visits please check out a recent post about pet therapy on my blog, Grown and Flown.

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Thank you Moose and Mary Dell, for all the wonderful work you do to comfort these patients. I'm sure it makes their day whenever you arrive!


Jen, It is as gratifying for (and I think for Moose, too) as it is for our patients. That is the wonderful thing about volunteering in any capacity.Thanks!

Mary Dell Harrington

(Jen, sorry, I forgot to put my name in the comment above.)


Way to go, Moose and Mary Dell! Keep up the great work!

Mary Dell Harrington

Thank you!

Jim Lopez

Very uplifting article!!! Moose is a very handsome boy!! God Bless Labs!!! They are the Best!!

You've inspired me!! I will look into Pet Partners to see if I can get my dog trained.

Mary Dell Harrington

Jim, thanks! Moose does a wonderful job at the hospital, in my opinion. It is fun and gratifying to work with him and I love it when others try to become certified to be able to work with their dogs, too. Good luck!


Thank you for all you do. My 6-year-old grandson was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. His favorite part of his school day is when Moses, the therapy dog comes to his class. The joy and smile on his face is beautiful. I am truly amazed what therapy dogs can do. Again, I cannot thank you and the organization enough.

Mary Dell Harrington

Carol, I am so happy to learn that your grandson has Moses in his life. The Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown, NY have begun training dogs to be companion animals for families with autistic children. Your and your family might find their work helpful. Thanks for the kind words.

Annaliza Vos

Moose and Mary well done, you guys are doing a grat job. I need some advice from both of you. I am going to study animal behaviour and was forever wondering how i could do therapy with animals and then I was reading this. I am in South Africa, can you give me any advice? I would love to work with handicap children and adult aswell. I also want to do TTouch after the behaviour course. Moose are a beautiful and special dog, love the emotions in his eyes. Warmest Annaliza Vos