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Crestwood Behavioral Health

The Healing Power of Dogs

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When he first stepped inside Crestwood San Diego he was thin, weak, and frightened. He had patchy hair from malnourishment and poor hygiene. He had been abused and kept in a small space when he was younger, and he was later abandoned by his first family. He had been forced to live on the streets for some time before getting taken in by the “system.” He would sometimes get aggressive with others and he clearly was traumatized by his past in ways that gave him nightmares that made him toss and turn and cry at night. His legs were weakened and arthritic from being confined when he was young, and this caused him to struggle when walking. He was nervous when he first came to Crestwood San Diego, but he was quickly embraced by both the staff and clients. His name is Gifford and he is a six-year old Chow Chow/Golden Retriever mix dog.

Gifford was adopted with another rescued older Chow Chow/Golden Retriever mix, named Enzo, from a high-kill shelter in San Bernardino by two staff members, Meghan O’Barr, a Service Coordinator at Crestwood Chula Vista and Stephen O’Barr, Director of Nursing at Crestwood San Diego.  Enzo’s first owner was a man with mental illness who ended up hospitalized for a long period of time, which then left Enzo to fend for himself on the streets, until he was picked up by the shelter.

Gifford was so scared and traumatized that he didn’t make eye contact at first, but he was ever so grateful for any petting he received. He required a lot of care, rehabilitation, and exercise before he stepped inside the facility as a therapy dog. He was shy at first, but as staff and clients opened up to him and showed him love, he quickly grew to like spending time at Crestwood San Diego and Crestwood Chula Vista. Like Gifford, Enzo had many trust issues.  He would greet people, but also kept his distance for the first month. It took patience, consistency and compassion for Enzo to get past his trust issues, just like many of our Crestwood clients.  Enzo is now the quintessential “Velcro” dog, always staying close to his family, yet with reassurance, is eager to meet new people and give them kisses.

Michael Bargagliotti, the former Administrator of both Crestwood Chula Vista and Crestwood San Diego, who is now the Administrator of the Crestwood Center San Jose campus, was highly supportive of incorporating pets as part of the therapeutic milieu.  Since September 2015, Michael opened the door to allow several staff members to bring their dogs to both facilities, including Service Coordinator, Maida Ferraes, who brings her dog Rocco; Director of Nursing Services, Fabiola Evans, who brings her dog Riley; and Service Coordinator, Jana Cook, who brings her dog Sammy Thomas. All of these dogs were rescued from shelters, have experienced their own trauma and now love their new lives as the dogs of Crestwood.

The dogs add to the feeling of a warm and homelike atmosphere that Crestwood MHRCs strive to create with a living-room milieu. They don’t just bring cuteness, fur and fun to the two programs; they have made connections with some of the clients who suffer from the worst paranoia and anxiety and who often push most people away. Studies have shown that pet therapy helps clients by lessening depression, decreasing feelings of isolation, encouraging communication, providing comfort, increasing socialization, lowering anxiety, and reducing loneliness.  Gifford recently helped a client with suspected sexual abuse to feel safe and comfortable enough so that they could start opening up to the staff. Gifford was also the mascot at the first San Diego vs Chula Vista kickball tournament, and he even makes appearances at IDT meetings so that clients can feel more comfortable in discussions that may be sometimes stressful.

One client coping with manic episodes at Crestwood Chula Vista refers to Rocco as “my boy” and their shared exuberance and energy makes them the best of friends.  Rocco has been instrumental in reducing this client’s symptoms with simple, every day dog activities, such as walks and games of fetch. Like Gifford, Rocco struggled with his relationship with other animals and underwent training with a behavioral therapist, an experience that many clients can relate to. Sammy Thomas, who one of the clients calls, “Jana’s Lamb,” is a gentle boy, who like some of our clients, suffers from a severe medical condition.  Sammy experiences seizures and takes medication daily. Jana and Meghan both use their dogs’ medication needs to help normalize medication management and this helps many of their clients realize that Sammy and Enzo are just like them.

Clients at Crestwood San Diego and Crestwood Chula Vista have watched with delight as love and care have transformed Gifford from a nervous, half-lame dog with patchy fur, into a big, friendly bear with a beautiful, thick coat. The message our clients get is that if Gifford can grow and change, then so can they.  Just as the staff is deeply satisfied by their clients’ growth and successes, the clients have taken great joy in seeing the recovery and resiliency of our Crestwood dogs and know that they are capable of recovery too. Several clients have grown very attached to the dogs and look forward to each of their visits. These amazing dogs have awakened empathy and affection in many of our clients through their unconditioned love and presence. They both share a lot of trauma and suffering in their pasts.  They also share a simple need, which is to be loved and to know that they are not alone and they can give each other that powerful, simple love that makes them both stronger and happier.  That love, togetherness, and understanding are the mainstays of recovery, and are what makes Crestwood so special.

Contributed by: Meghan O’Barr, Service Coordinator
Crestwood Chula Vista
and
Stephen O’Barr, Director of Nursing, Crestwood San Diego

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