Mocha, WVU Medicine Wheeling Hospital’s emotional support dog, takes on a new clinical role by helping patients as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for anxiety disorders. Shown with Mocha are her caregiver and handler, Cara Gazdik, clinical director of Nursing at the hospital, and John McFadden, PsyD, psychologist at the hospital’s Family Health Center.
For several months now, WVU Medicine Wheeling Hospital’s resident “DOGtor,” Mocha, has served the emotional needs of employees and patients alike. As the hospital’s official emotional support dog, she is now serving in a clinical capacity, as part of a psychological treatment plan known as exposure therapy.
Mocha, who is managed by Cara Gazdik, Clinical Director of Nursing at the hospital, recently assisted in the treatment of a patient of Wheeling Hospital Family Health Center psychologist, John McFadden, PsyD. The patient, a little girl who is paralyzed by her anxiety disorder, in particular, her fear of dogs, met with Dr. McFadden, Gazdik and Mocha in a series of sessions designed to help alleviate her phobia.
In a safely controlled environment, they slowly began exposing her to what she fears most, dogs. Early on, she exhibited terror when introduced to Mocha but with each session McFadden has seen steady progress.
“If a fear becomes strong enough, it can greatly interfere with a person’s life,” McFadden said. “Whether the fear is of riding in an elevator, flying in an airplane, walking across a bridge, or a little girl so afraid of animals and insects that she cannot be outdoors during summertime. Her paralyzing fear greatly impacts the quality of her life. By using exposure therapy as part of our comprehensive treatment plan, our goal is to resolve the fear.”
The therapy involves desensitizing patients by exposing them to what it is they fear, what brings them anxiety, or what makes them panic. The exposure is increased in small doses, gradually escalating in steps and in degree of interaction.
According to McFadden, anxiety disorders are among the most common psychiatric disorders diagnosed in childhood. Exposure based therapy is highly effective for patients with anxiety disorders and he believes it should be used as an early approach when treating such patients.
“The progressions with each session are undeniable and are slowly curbing her debilitating phobia,” he said. “We started the therapy by just putting them in the same room with no physical contact, then we progressed to brief interactions between the little girl and Mocha. Eventually, Cara took the dog to the girl’s school and she felt comfortable enough to walk her on a leash throughout the assembly and teach her fellow classmates about Mocha’s job and responsibilities at the hospital.”
Gazdik adopted Mocha through The Road Home Animal Project in St. Clairsville. Mocha received specialized training through a program customized just for her, which addressed the specific needs and traits of being an emotional support dog in a hospital environment.
“There were certain conditions and situations Mocha needed to be accustomed to and we wanted her to be socialized with people of different age groups,” Gazdik said. “She is calm, patient and gentle, so she was truly a perfect fit for the clinical needs of this specific situation. She comforts people on daily basis and has already made such a positive impact during her short time here at the hospital.”