Ginger welcomed the pets and attention from students during a recent visit to Purdue University Fort Wayne.
The Cavalier lap dog was among the group of floppy ears and wagging tails that make up the Three Rivers Visiting Dogs, which visited PFW last month as part of the college's Mental Health Week. Along with their owners, the dogs visit health fairs, hospitals and nursing homes throughout the year.
On this day, the dogs were helping students take a break from dealing with the daily stresses of college life.
“It really helps the kids – coming here, petting the dogs,” said Bob Everest, founder of the nonprofit. “It lowers your blood pressure and changes things in your day that are going bad.”
The organization's immersion into the Fort Wayne community gives the team members a chance to share their own stories and show the mental and physical impact dogs have on the public.
Ginger is just one of the trained dogs who offer therapy to various people in need, despite her own disability. “She's completely deaf, but you would never know,” Everest says. “She loves what she's doing.”
Ginger's owner, Charlotte Coburn, got Ginger 10 years ago for her 50th wedding anniversary.
Everest founded Three Rivers Visiting Dogs in 2000. He currently has a team of 100 members.
The team trains dogs in an immersive eight-week program to determine how they react and interact. A simple test such as bringing the dog in a hospital elevator can play a factor in whether they become certified therapy dogs or not, Everest says.
Ginger passed the program with flying colors despite being deaf.
In addition to such events as the one at PFW, Three Rivers Visiting Dogs also works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness by attending support groups for people with mental illness and their families every Tuesday night to reduce the stigma.
Dr. Joel Givenz, a counselor at PFW's counseling center, and Everest both say that mental health professionals are transforming the way people think about treatment, and the presence of therapy dogs raises awareness for visibility.
“We see the importance of touch. When it comes to an animal, it could be doing a lot of work for a person just to have something soothing nearby,” Givenz said.
This can be important when it comes to such issues as suicide, which is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Raising awareness is a primary way to advertise the benefits of professional help and reduce the stigma around mental health, Givenz says.
Sending positive messages about seeking professional help is necessary for turning over the stigma, officials say.
Tim Hill, counselor-in-training at PFW's center, says that one benefit of forming a connection with a client is creating an environment for change.
“It's no different than if they had a cold and they went to see their doctor,” says Hill, who juggles a full-time job and taking care of his family with volunteering as a counselor. “It's still just a part of who they are, and if they think they need to improve it ... then we are here and willing to help.”
Givenz says the more people are involved with awareness events, the more the mental health stigma is lowered, concerns are normalized, and people can talk about those concerns without feeling embarrassment.
And it's not just with mental health, the dogs also make an impact on those in hospitals and people suffering from dementia.
Everest says he has been on several visits to people with Alzheimer's disease who remember their time with the dog, and even the animal's name, but not anything else. In another instance, a dog encouraged progression in a burn victim. Over the course of several visits, the patient went from only being able to pet the dog with one finger to embracing the animal with strength.
“We've had people in comas waking up petting a dog,” Everest says. “We can't explain it ... but they do a big thing.”
There are several local organizations that offer help for people who may be suffering from mental health issues:
•National Alliance on Mental Illness gives free crisis counseling by texting “NAMI” to 741741 • The National Suicide Hotline is 1-800-273-8255 • The public can schedule sessions at Purdue University Fort Wayne's counseling center in Room 131 of the Dolnick Learning Center, 2101 Coliseum Blvd. E., from 5 to 8 p.m. Mondays, noon to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. Call 481-5405 for information.