Reprinted with permission from Pet Partners Interactions Magazine Summer 2014
Chuck Mitchell and Rikki of Tallahassee, Florida
Rikki is a Golden Retriever rescued from the flood waters outside New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. She and her handler, Chuck Mitchell, pay regular visits to the geriatric schizophrenic ward of one of the local psychiatric hospitals. During one visit, a deaf and mute patient sat with a vacant gaze, flanked by his interpreter and his therapist. The man waved the team off as quickly as his interpreter signed their greeting, and they moved on to the next person. After a few minutes of positive interactions with four other residents, Rikki and Chuck came back to see if the man had changed his mind. He hadn’t, and again dismissively waved them off. After making the rounds of the room again, Rikki pulled Chuck over to the man once more, but his complete lack of interest was clear. Chuck approached the interpreter and said, “forgive me, but my dog really seems to think that your client would like to meet her. Would you mind asking him just one more time?” As the interpreter signed the request, Rikki laid down at the man’s feet and looked straight up into his eyes. Her muscles relaxed and her mouth opened in an expectant smile. A kaleidoscope of expressions crossed the man’s face, then for a moment his eyes rolled far back in his head. Suddenly, he burst into a huge smile and focused on Rikki as though he’d never seen her before. He leaned over and threw his arms around her neck, moaning as he buried his head in her fur. Instead of stiffening up, Rikki relaxed and leaned forward into him, bringing herself even closer. The man began softly weeping and rocking back and forth. Then, just as quickly as he had begun, the man released Rikki, sat upright and looked straight ahead with a vacant stare, ignoring Rikki and Chuck. Rikki seemed to know the visit was over, so Chuck thanked everyone and left the room. The therapist followed the team into the hall, explaining that the man suffered from multiple personality disorder. His dominant personality, which was aloof and antisocial, controlled the others and precluded them from emerging, except occasionally – and then only for a short time. He and the other therapists had worked to encourage one of the man’s other, more sociable personalities to emerge long enough for them to make contact. “Your dog did in a few minutes what I haven’t been able to do in 12 years. She connected with one of his personalities who wanted to deal with the outside world in a positive manner,” he said. The therapist admitted he had never really believed that animal-assisted therapy would be of any benefit to his practice. After witnessing the incident, however, he asked Chuck to bring Rikki again the following week and focus strictly on this patient. The following week, other therapists and physicians were in attendance as well, including the hospital’s chief medical director. As during the previous visit, the man was not interested in the dog at first. However, it didn’t take long for the more social personality to emerge, though his arrival wasn’t as physically dramatic as it had been in the first encounter. The man eventually relaxed enough while petting Rikki that the therapists were able to have brief interludes of conversation with him through his interpreter. As Chuck and Rikki prepared to leave, everyone in the room — including the patient, through his interpreter — thanked Chuck for bringing Rikki. Once Rikki provided the key to get around the man’s dominant, isolated personality, the professionals were able to begin connecting with him and treating him in more conventional ways.