JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. – --
When Lady comes bounding into a room, surprisingly graceful and hidden under a coat of thick white dog fur, the atmosphere changes. People emerge from their cubicles out of curiosity, they pet her and they laugh as she nuzzles their legs.
Lady is a five-year-old, 80-pound Great Pyrenees with a job to do. A nationally-certified therapy dog, she is the newest member of the 363rd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing’s Airman Resilience Team.
“I definitely think that what a dog can bring is just that lightened sense of atmosphere,” Tech. Sgt. Johanna Ackerberg, Lady’s handler and a mental health technician at the 363rd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, said. “That distraction and anxiety reducer can definitely benefit (our Airmen).”
Like many Airmen, Lady has duty hours. She visits the wing Tuesdays and Thursdays, and is tasked with giving the unit a much-needed break by cuddling, playing and lending a non-judgmental ear.
“I can tell you, subjectively, that our Airmen love Lady,” Dr. Jerry Walker III, a licensed clinical psychologist and human factors program manager at the 363rd ISR Wing, said. “They love it when we bring her around. Without fail it doesn’t seem like she’s bothering anybody, they’re very pleased to have a dog interrupt their work even if it’s just to pet her a few times.”
Ackerberg decided to get Lady certified after receiving her assignment with the 363rd ISR Wing. She had worked with therapy dogs at other units, and seen the positive impact they can have on mental health.
Lady already had basic obedience training, so she had to complete approximately five weekends of additional courses before receiving her therapy dog certification in November 2017.
“She had to test with 15 other dogs and they’re not supposed to acknowledge any of the other dogs, so good luck, right?” Ackerberg said with a laugh. “But she had to learn do some pretty interesting things, she has to be around medical equipment like crutches and wheelchairs, she can’t spook, she can’t take any treats, or at least she’s not supposed to.”
The benefits of therapy dogs in the workplace are rooted in an area of psychology called animal therapy. Introducing therapy animals into a work environment provides people with a temporary stimulus that helps relieve them of stress, said Walker.
Petting a dog can also benefit your health by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, irritability and frustration, according to Walker.
“What’s great about therapy dogs is they’re taught how to respond to us, not just their owners, but to other people when they’re feeling a certain way,” said Walker. “They’re trained to respond to human emotions.”
Therapy animals have been gaining recognition within the military. Other units, such as the 366th Medical Group at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, have employed therapy dogs to assist with patient recovery.
“I think that (animal therapy) is becoming more of an accepted thing,” Walker said. “We’re seeing some great benefits from it and it wouldn’t surprise me if more organizations begin to catch on to this great innovation.”