COVID-19 canine: Dog helping mental health patients as cases surge in era of coronavirus

3-year-old A.J. is a Labrador and golden mix
Posted at 1:18 PM, Aug 19, 2020

AURORA, Colo. -- Inside the HealthONE Behavioral Health and Wellness Center in Aurora, Colorado, doctors and other staff members are dealing with a surge of patients.

“With the impact of COVID, we have seen an increase in patients,” said HealthONE occupational therapist Emma Kowal.

And one staff member, in particular, is bringing a level of care most others cannot.

“A.J.’s definitely my favorite co-worker,” said technician Colin Smith.

“He knows when we put the vest on – it’s time to go to work,” Kowal said.

Three-year-old A.J. is a Labrador and golden retriever mix who came on board at HealthONE just in the nick of time, you could say - one month before COVID-19 shut down much of the country.

“A.J. comes in and he’s instantly disarming,” Smith said.

“This unbounding sense of love that he can provide to people,” Kowal said.

A.J. is working with Kowal, visiting as many as 100 patients a week.

“Whether that’s petting him, just touching him, brushing him,” she said. “Earlier someone bent down and kissed him on the head.”

HealthONE and other mental health inpatient facilities like it are seeing a critical care need. The CDC’s latest numbers show 40% of U.S. adults reporting some kind of mental health issue – depression, anxiety and substance use among them – because of various challenges and hardships related to the coronavirus.

“Dogs are often really familiar and really comforting for people,” Kowal said.

Just this week, A.J. is visiting a floor of adolescents who recently attempted suicide.

“The kids love him so much,” Smith said. “The way their faces just kind of light up when he comes on the unit. I wish they did that for me.”

And Smith says it goes way beyond that.

“A.J. is also a dream colleague for staff,” Smith said. “Oh my gosh, so much. He definitely helps when the staff gets stressed out. It’s a very stressful job.”

“I think in mental health, we have to be aware of our own mental health, too,” Kowal said. “I feel privileged that I can serve my community this way.”

This story originally reported by Russell Haythorn on