Student Counseling Services welcomes former detection dog as new therapist

Published: November 04, 2015
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Auburn University’s Student Counseling Services added a new therapist this summer – “Dr. Moose,” a 7-year-old yellow Labrador retriever.

The former bomb detection dog is a welcome addition among the trained staff, but he’s definitely not the office pet.

“He’s not here to play all day long,” said Dr. Doug Hankes, director of Student Counseling Services. “In the office, he’s all business. He’s a therapist when he’s in here.”

Hankes and Dr. Katie Werner, a licensed staff psychologist, wanted a therapy dog for the clinic because of the benefits it would bring.

“Many universities use dogs strictly for outreach, like taking them through a student center to reach 50 people in an hour,” said Werner, “but dogs can also be used to assist in the care of clients with anxiety or a history of trauma. Research shows that having animal-assisted therapy increases motivation, engagement and emotional expression.”

For the student who seeks counseling, Werner said the presence of a dog could make each session more beneficial. And considering Student Counseling Services operates on a short-term model – students generally are limited to 10 50-minute sessions a year – it’s important to make the most out of that time.

“Research says lots of change can occur in those 10 hours,” said Werner. “In between sessions, students can incorporate what we’ve discussed into their lives and make strides in their treatment. They can be more engaged and motivated from that first session with Moose there.”

Even with research on their sides, Hankes and Werner had a number of factors to consider in having a therapy dog, including where it would live and how it would be acquired.

The pair eventually found themselves at the Canine Performance Sciences program in Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where they met Moose and Baxter. Both dogs had worked bomb detection for the Department of Justice, but Auburn’s canine experts were considering putting them in new careers.

Both Hankes and Werner admitted they were apprehensive about the possibility of successfully retraining a dog that is used to the intense, high drive environment of bomb detection to be a calming influence in therapy sessions. But Bart Rogers, who trained Moose for bomb detection when he arrived at Canine Performance Sciences in 2010, assured them it was possible.

“I was confident that Moose would be able to transition to being a therapy dog because of his personality,” he said. “After working with him and training him for numerous projects for the last few years, I became aware that he was very versatile and capable of nearly any task. Moose is an intense dog, but also calm, focused and always wants to please.”

Rogers said Moose not only excelled at bomb detection, but he was also good at virus detection. He said Moose was able to detect the bovine viral diarrhea virus with a sensitivity of 96 percent and was able to discriminate two other non-target viruses with a specificity of 98 percent. Moose is one of two dogs in the world with this ability.

“To Moose, the virus target odor was just another odor he learned to detect,” said Rogers. “He is a very calculated and methodical dog which makes him great at detection.”

To transition to therapy, Rogers trained Moose with his new primary handler – Werner.

Werner agreed to take on the role, which meant Moose would live with her. She said she has a very understanding husband who accepted adding a third dog into their household.

Moose is no stranger to living with other dogs or obeying a handler, but he had never lived in a house before. Werner said he would exemplify extreme obedience and bravery, but if he heard a hair dryer, vacuum or television, he would become cautious and curious at the unfamiliar sounds.

Hankes compared the behavior to dogs and stairs. Most aren’t accustomed to them until they learn to adapt.

Rogers spent months working with Moose and Werner to prepare for the Therapy Dogs International test and the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen test. Moose passed both and began his new job this summer.

The entire staff at Student Counseling Services is equipped to work with Moose. He can be a part of any counseling session as long as the client is comfortable with his presence and he could be a benefit to the client’s circumstances.

“I didn’t know if he’d like this kind of work,” said Werner. “He’s very active and trained to follow his nose, but now he looks to each of us on staff for cues, instead of what’s around him.”

Hankes said Moose can work with students in individual or group counseling sessions. In a group session, Moose will sit in the middle of the group. When a student gets emotional, he’ll move next to them. Hankes said he doesn’t get in their lap or beg for attention. If the student wants to interact with Moose, they can. Otherwise, he will remain sitting there until their emotions change. Then he’ll move back to the center of the group.

“He’s what we call a grounding tool,” said Hankes. “His presence helps a client manage their dissociation and emotions so they can focus on the present.”

Werner said a dog can be a successful grounding tool because its presence lowers a person’s blood pressure and releases feel-good hormones, which aid in processing emotions.

Student Counseling Services has started “Let Loose with Moose” this year to allow Moose to work outside the office, interacting with students around campus each week.

“Looking at Moose, you can’t tell he was once a detector dog,” Hankes said. “He’s around the office all day. He even comes to our staff meetings and will do his job there if he detects someone’s emotions.”

Paul Waggoner, co-director of the Canine Performance Sciences program, said dogs are remarkably well-suited for therapeutic duties because, as much scientific evidence suggests, they have a unique social sensitivity to people.

Dogs have been known to pick up on human gestures without explicit training and even yawn when a human companion does, he said. That sensitivity can give dogs the ability to be particularly susceptible to people’s emotions.

“It’s fascinating to me that he was so successful in that high energy environment (of bomb detection) and now he’s trained to pick up on our emotions,” added Hankes.

Staff and resources permitting, Hankes and Werner would like to add more dogs to Student Counseling Services.

“I hope we see more detection dogs retire from their jobs and go on to become service, therapy or companion dogs for people who need them,” added Rogers. “Detection dogs love to work so it would be great if they could continue to have a job that improves the quality of life of people and also makes them happy.”