On Aug. 25, 2012, I found myself in the hospital after overdosing on a cocktail of prescription medication. I had been on a respirator for 17 hours. When I woke up, I was told that one of my dogs—Pasta—had saved my life by lying on me and licking my face until my friend arrived and called the paramedics.
After hearing that, all I wanted to do was see Pasta, but hospital staff wouldn’t allow her into the ICU. After a lot of convincing, my doctor gave me 30 minutes with her. At the end of that short visit, I was ready to do whatever it took to start my journey to recovery. That day, I discovered first-hand how much the simple love and affection of a dog can jump-start the recovery process for someone struggling with mental illness.
A Dream Come True
Once I recovered from my stay at the hospital, I started doing research. I found out that therapy dog groups in my area were not servicing individuals experiencing mental illness, so I set out on a mission to bring free, animal-assisted therapy to the mental health community. I have a degree in business administration, so I had some knowledge of what it would take to run an organization—but I had no idea how to create one. I partnered with a friend, and together we started talking about our idea to everyone who would listen. Before we knew it, several people came forward to help. We had the beginnings of a board of directors, who became valuable sources of knowledge. We received guidance on how to write a business plan, and after a few months we submitted our application for nonprofit status in Missouri. Everyone we met loved our idea and, most importantly, our dogs!
On Sept. 27, 2013—almost one year and one month to the day after my overdose—Furry Friends Recovery (FFR) was officially certified as a nonprofit corporation in Missouri. Finally, it felt real! There were so many details—certifying the dogs, creating a volunteer training class, learning about animal-assisted therapy (AAT). All this needed to be done before taking dogs to work. So I began classes toward my certificate in AAT and spread the word in the local dog community that we would be offering a therapy dog-training class. My dream was coming true.
Teaming Up with NAMI
In August 2013, we met Jessica Gruneich, the executive director of NAMI Southwestern Illinois (NAMI SWI). After learning what NAMI does, it made perfect sense to align our efforts to provide innovative, educational and therapeutic opportunities for the people in our community. Jessica also joined the FFR board of directors and put us in contact with administrators at Gateway Regional Medical Center (GRMC).
In spring 2014, FFR began taking therapy dogs to visit the behavioral health units at GRMC. With NAMI’s help, our scrappy, startup nonprofit has had the opportunity to make a difference at hospitals with behavioral health programs that provide children, adolescents, adults and geriatric individuals with psychiatric care. FFR now provides therapeutic support by connecting pet-therapy teams with people who experience mental health conditions. We reach out to mental health facilities, hospitals, support groups, therapists, veterans—anyone anywhere who might need emotional support.
In 2016, FFR therapy dog teams touched approximately 7,500 people at more than 25 different facilities. We have more than 40 certified therapy dogs of all shapes and sizes, and many of them are even rescue dogs with their own stories to share. It’s always touching to see the smiles when we walk into a room. Just the other day, a man told me he hoped he would “still be in the hospital next week” so he could see the dogs again. An individual client who had just lost a spouse reached out to us and we began visiting her every week. She spends the entire hour snuggling with the dog. Children and adolescents in the inpatient behavioral health units sit on the floor hoping Blanket, Ami or Happy will sit on their laps while they share their personal struggles. I could write a book filled with all the stories of how our FFR dogs have touched lives.
Over the last three years, NAMI SWI and FFR have partnered at numerous community events including health fairs, mental health conferences and pet expos to educate the public on the importance of improving the lives of people living with mental illness and their families. FFR volunteers and their dogs have participated in NAMIWalks for the past two years, and NAMI volunteers often help at FFR fundraisers.
Furry Friends Make a Difference
With the encouragement and support of NAMI National Board Member Victoria Gonzalez, our most recent accomplishment has been the creation of a specialty NAMI Connections support group using FFR therapy dogs to ease anxiety, provide comfort, encourage communication and motivate people to attend. The format of the group is the same as any other Connections group, but there are two or three therapy dogs wandering around the room.
Because dogs also experience emotions and trauma, their handlers are asked to share a few sentences on behalf of their dog, which makes the dog a part of the group. For example, one of the dogs had been homeless for a while, and a group member who had also been homeless opened up about his experience to the group.
Sometimes the dogs are simply a source of comfort, helping build rapport within the group and encouraging sharing. Other times, members may be more interactive with the dogs by playing with them before or after the group, petting them while talking about an emotional issue or asking them to do a few tricks to lighten the mood. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive:
- “I liked having the dogs at the meeting.”
- “The dogs helped me relax and talk more.”
- “The dogs made me feel safe and comfortable.”
- “I love the dogs and they helped me on a difficult day.”
- “All the dogs that have come to our meetings are very smart; the tricks they did were great! I enjoy them so very much. One dog, Pasta, has one great story. Since I cannot have one myself, I love them all!”
It is exciting to be offering a specialty group that gives people an innovative option and helps support their journey toward recovery and mental wellness. It is one of the most popular signature programs in our area. Connecting my lived experience and my love for animals was the perfect foundation for Furry Friends Recovery. I’m so thankful that NAMI SWI teamed up with me so I could expand my dream and help more people.
Tricia Hogan has personal experience struggling with mental illness and feels strongly that dog therapy was a major component in her recovery. She is dedicated to making sure that others benefit from the healing power of dogs during recovery. She holds a Crisis Recovery Support Specialist (CRSS) credential for the state of Illinois and a certification in Animal Assisted Therapy from the Animal Behavior Institute. She is also active in certification for NAMI Peer-to-Peer, NAMI In Our Own Voice and NAMI Connections, and is a NAMI Peer-to-Peer state trainer.