Dr. Murphy Is In: The Value of Pet-Assisted Therapy

Murphy is a four-year-old Golden Retriever who, at over 100 pounds, looks more like a miniature horse than a dog. His head is the size of a cat or small dog. He was born in my home, the largest from a litter of eight pups.

Since birth, Murphy was a gentle soul and I knew he would be an amazing therapy dog. He has been coming with me to my psychotherapy office since he was eight weeks old, when I started bringing him to the office once or twice a week so he could get used to his new role.

From the beginning, I noticed a significant change in the environment when he was present, and not just the "Awwwwwww… how cute!" I noticed that teens put down their cell phones and got on the floor with the dog, adults relaxed and smiled, body postures changed, active children were calmer, and strangers interacted and shared their pet stories with one another. It felt like more of a community than a waiting room.

While Murphy is not a registered therapy dog, I was diligent in my training with Murphy. I currently have six adult dogs at home, have midwifed seven litters of Golden Retriever puppies and have done quite a bit of reading on the subject. With each litter I learned more about animal behavior and raising calm pups. At puppy nap time, for example, I play relaxing classical and New Age music.

Frequent visits from my nieces helped the puppies become used to being with children. I learned that rubbing their tiny paws and ears helps them to become more accustomed to being touched. We began teaching commands at five weeks old and had them paper-trained by eight weeks. Everyone who purchased a puppy commented on how gentle they were. One woman, who was blind, purchased a puppy as her guide dog. She calls every year to thank us and tell us that he the best Golden Retriever she has ever owned. But out of all the puppies, we held on to Murphy. He was special from the beginning.

When I began bringing Murphy to work with me, I taught him clear expected work behavior. He never barked, piddled, or jumped on people while at the office, and he was always incredibly gentle. When he was still a pup, I pulled him by his paws, sometimes I wiggled his ears around or flopped his jowels, wiggled his tail to show the kids how gentle he was. He would just sit or lay there like a rag doll, sometimes by my side and sometimes right smack in the middle of the hallway.

I started him on harness and leash, but gradually allowed him to follow me around unleashed. He was donned with a variety of colorful bandanas. We jokingly called him the office greeter, as he would lay by the front door patiently awaiting his next visitor. Murphy became part of our community.

Several children made "Dr. Murphy Is In" signs and brought him gifts. Children, teens and even adults would request coming on a "Murphy Day" because they "needed him" during their sessions. Before the end of the first year, local pediatricians heard about Murphy and began referring children with animal phobias or anxiety to me.

Turning Fears Into Friends

Anna*, five years old, was petrified of all animals and her parents were unable to take her out of the house if there was any kind of animal within view. With great enthusiasm, I told the mom that I had started bringing my very gentle puppy into the office, and that Murphy would be of great assistance to helping her daughter. The mother was very hesitant but agreed to bring her daughter.

For about the first three to four months the little girl was unable to even look at Murphy, screaming if she saw even a part of his tail. The little girl and her mother stayed in the waiting room while Murphy and I remained on the other side of the wall. Each week, Murphy and I crawled a little closer, and I would wave Murphy's paw, ear or his nose around the corner of the wall. When Anna would start crying and screaming, I started singing "Old McDonald" with her to help decrease her anxiety. Every time she cried, the three of us sang together until she was calmer, and then I took another step closer.

I took photos of Murphy and let her take them home. The little girl would bring gifts for Murphy — a squeeze toy, new bandana or a drawing. Over these months, she began calling Murphy her best friend. Gradually she was able to be in the same room with him and eventually, she even laid her head on Murphy's cuddly torso. Murphy seemed to sense her anxiety and remained still while she slowly made her way toward him. When her parents decided to end treatment, they thanked me (and Dr. Murphy) for the tremendous progress their daughter had made. Anna was now able to go out of the house when there were animals present, and they even talked about getting their own dog.

Katrina * experienced a severe fear of dogs, although that had not been the reason she came for counseling. One evening she arrived at my office, saw Murphy and froze at the entrance. I called Murphy into my office and held him (he seemed to sense when someone was afraid). He stayed tight by my side. I gently supported her, telling that I knew she would be okay and Murphy would not hurt her. She continued to shake her head "No."

Over the next 40 minutes, I encouraged her to take miniscule steps toward me. After each step we changed the subject, joked around, and then I would invite her to take the next tiny step. When she was at arms' length away, I invited her to reach down and touch Murphy's tail. I continued to praise her courage and reminded her to breathe. I next asked her to touch Murphy's paw. She bent down and rubbed his paw, then his tail, and then rubbed his side.

Murphy remained completely still as if he sensed her high level of anxiety. He seemed to allow her to lead the pace of the relationship. She stood up, smiled with great pride, then ran into the waiting room to share her success with her mother. As she was leaving, she asked when Murphy would be here next. "I trust Sherri," she told her mother.

Pet Therapy Research On the Rise

Research about the multiple levels of positive impact of pet therapy (and animal-human relationships) is amazing. A study of some 6000 patients from the Baker Medical Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, revealed that those with pets had lower blood pressure, a lower cholesterol level and as a result, a diminished risk of heart attack.1 And American researchers have established that, even after a heart attack, pet owners are more likely than other coronary patients to be alive a year later.2

According to the UCLA website, at several of the UCLA Medical centers, pet therapy has been utilized since 1994 when the Person-Animal Connection (PAC) program was established. "Dogs are naturally interactive and provide relief from long days in the hospital, helping patients to shift their focus from discomfort to enjoyment. The animals' unconditional love and attention brighten everyone's day — patients, visitors, and staff alike. Medical research has shown that AAT/A [Animal Assisted Therapy and Activity] brings about physiological signs of relaxation such as decreased blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. In addition, AAT/A stimulates activity in Alzheimer's patients and in physical therapy and rehabilitation." Canine-volunteer teams visit more than 500 patients each week. They have made over 80,000 visits since its inception in 1994.

According to research by Gawlinski, Steers, Cole and Kotlerman, AAT heart failure patients showed decreased blood pressure, reduction in anxiety, quieting of peoples' anxieties, and a drop in stress hormone levels by an average of 24%.3 In another study researchers found that children who received AAT and visits from therapy dogs experienced a marked reduction pain levels.4

Animal assisted therapy, pet therapy, canine assisted therapy, and equine therapy have been on rise and more accepted in the medical and mental health fields in a variety of settings. It is being used in mental health settings, hospitals, with autistic children, with soldiers returning from war, in residential settings, prisons, senior centers and those suffering from PTSD. In fact, I recently found out that my cousin runs an equine therapy program in Minnesota called "Hold Your Horses"!

There are only a few downsides of having Murphy at work. Not all people like dogs (but only one person has actually complained so far.) Some people are allergic. Some do not want dog hair on their nice suits. However many of my clients now come prepared, actually bringing their allergy medicine or a lint brush with them, knowing that Dr. Murphy might be there.

In addition, dogs do smell like dogs and there is no hiding that and dog breath comes along with the dog. I try my best to brush his teeth, groom and bathe him, spray him with doggie cologne, but there is no doubt that Murphy still smells like a dog. And vacuuming and keeping up with the dog hair is a constant effort. However, the benefits of having Murphy at work definitely outweigh the downsides!

It's All About Love

Unconditional love is a basic human need. The unconditional acceptance that an animal can provide may offer healing of unresolved emotional injuries or irrational fears and anxieties. The animal does not judge, exclude or criticize; it only accepts and provides love. The animal has no expectations, does not hurry through life, lives in the moment, and shares that moment with the human. There is no yesterday or tomorrow. There are no worries.

I realize that not every dog is like Murphy and that he has some special qualities. Clients have repeatedly commented to me, "Murphy just seems to know how I'm feeling." He is constantly patient and in the moment. He does not rush from one experience to the next. Does Murphy sense what they need?

Maureen* a woman with a trauma history, requests to come on "Dr. Murphy days." She says, "Murphy knows when I'm hurting, when I need affection and attention." When Maureen cries, Murphy wakes from a deep sleep and gently edges closer to her to comfort and lick her tears. He seems to sense others' pain. Maureen gently strokes Murphy and the tears flow down her cheeks. No words are needed. Murphy "holds her pain."

Scotty* experiences social anxiety and has difficulty socializing with peers. He quickly took to Murphy and requested "Murphy appointments." During his visits, Scotty would brush Murphy gently. With each brush stroke, he became more and more relaxed, eventually lying beside the dog. There was no communication gap between them, only complete mutual acceptance. As he lay there face-to-face with Murphy, he said, "Murphy loves me." I didn't tell him this, but everyone at the office says the same thing: that Murphy loves them. The most wonderful feeling in the world is to feel and be loved. We have so much to learn from our animal companions.

*All clients' names and details have been changed to protect their privacy.


  1. "Cats, Dogs and People Politics," www.quantumhealthmagazine.com/. July 28, 2011.
  2. "Are Pets Good For Your Health?" www.rd.com
  3. "Animal-Assisted Therapy in Patients Hospitalized with Heart Failure." American Journal of Critical Care, November, 2007, Vol 16, #6.
  4. "Animal Assisted Therapy As a Pain Relief Intervention," Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, May, 2009.

Recommended Reading

Kristin Von Kreisler, The Compassion of Animals. 1999. Three Rivers Press.
Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson, Dogs Never Lie About Love. 1998. Three Rivers Press.
Luis Carlos Montalvan, Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him. 2011. Hyperion.
Wayne Pacelle, The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals. 2012. William Morrow Paperbacks.
Jane Miller, Healing Companions: Ordinary Dogs and Their Extraordinary Power to Transform Lives. 2010. New Page Books
Sharon Sakson, Paws and Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs. 2009. Spiegel & Grau
Cynthia Chandler, Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling. 2005. Routledge Publishing.
Teri Pichot, Transformation of the Heart: Tales of the Profound Impact Therapy Dogs Have on Their Humans. 2009. iUniverse.

Sherri Snyder-Roche, MA, LMHC, has been providing psychotherapy for over 26 years to children, teens, and adults in a variety of settings. She integrates a variety of approaches including mindfulness/relaxation, EMDR, expressive therapies and creativity to enhance the change process. She has been an adjunct professor at Lesley University for 14 years. Visit www.IntegratedPsychotherapy.com or email ssnyder.lmhc@gmail.com.