Therapy dogs at UT Health San Antonio psychiatry clinic keep patients calm, coming back

Four-legged friends take the edge off doctors’ appointment anxiety

SAN ANTONIO – A local study last year placed therapy dogs at a dialysis center where they found huge success with patients showing up to their appointments.

Now, the same doctor is bringing those dogs to her UT Health San Antonio psychiatry and behavioral health patients.

“She does this little tippy taps with her back legs, when she really wants to hang out with somebody,” said patient Isaac Hart.

Hart has three dogs at home and said they help him feel calm and happy.

To find that comfort outside of home, especially at a doctor’s appointment, is a big win.

His first reaction when he saw the dogs? “Oh, it was excitement, just pure joy!” he said.

The so-called Healing Hounds roam the waiting room at UT Health San Antonio’s Behavioral Health and Wellness Center, making new friends by the second.

The program is made possible by local nonprofit organizations, and both are officially AKC certified as therapy dog organizations.

“We work with Paws for Service and TASA, which is Therapy Animals of San Antonio. And, you know, we would not be able to do this program without them and their support. And they’re wonderful teams visiting our patients.

The program started with just three dogs, but now that all of the clinics are combined into one building, there are more patients and more demand. So now they’re up to 11 dogs, and ready to add more.

“I see a psychologist here, they prescribe medications for depression and wellness. So pet therapy ... is like the perfect prescription,” Hart said.

Hart said the dogs break down a patient’s discomfort or embarrassment, caused by mental health stigma.

“It can be intimidating, it can be scary, any number of things coming to get treatment,” said Dr. Meredith Stensland with UT Health San Antonio psychiatry.

KSAT first met Stensland last year when she brought the pups to a dialysis center as part of her research study to see if it could cut down on no-shows, and increase therapy adherence.

“It almost cut their likelihood of missing appointment by about 70 percent,” Stensland said.

While the UT Health San Antonio psychiatry patients aren’t involved in research, Stensland can easily see similar results.

A psychiatrist told her that days ago, a new patient almost walked out on their appointment.

“It was having a dog here that calmed them, let them stay around long enough to actually have their appointment,” Stensland said.

And it’s not just the patients benefitting. The dogs have had a positive effect on the staff.

“Animals are very therapeutic and they just bring out the joy in everyone,” Patient Access Specialist Genevieve Lara said.

In a demanding healthcare field, mental health is crucial for both patients and staff.

Believe it or not, Hart said he can’t wait for his next appointment.

“It gives me something to look forward to,” he said.

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About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

Alexis Montalbo is a photojournalist at KSAT 12.