THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD:

Portuguese Water Dog Charm in the Mental Health Biz

                                                Judith Coche, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.*


                        “Dogs never talk about themselves but listen while

                         you talk about yourself, and keep the appearance

                          of being interested in the conversation.”

                                                             -Jerome Jerome


“I want to go to Whitby’s house!”  The toddler made a bee line for my office, dragging her Mom.  Her sister, suffering from serious depression, was lost in sad, aimless thoughts, but smiled bravely as Whitby approached her for his greeting pats. Each week the family actually looked forward to quiet time spent in the offices, where Whitby hung out during treatment and in the waiting room.  “Thank you, Whitby, for easing the pain of this illness for this family.”


“Oh, your dog is Soooooo cute!”  I hear this daily as we walk the sidewalks of Center City Philadelphia, and Stone Harbor, on the coast of New Jersey.  But Whitby, my dog has more than teddy bear looks as his credentials.  Rarely bored, challenged at every turn by new clients and their complex personalities, he is happiest when he can combine work and play, just like I do.  His tail wags madly as the appearance of his bandanna signals that a work day will begin soon.  Whitby Anderson’s behavior tells you that, in his opinion, he has “the best job in the world”.


The privilege of canine ownership brings responsibility. Our world legally punishes parents who deny children schooling during their formative years.  It seems logical to me that our world might extend this requirement to ownership of a smart, emotionally gifted baby dog.  Like humans, dogs are capable of loyalty, training, and pleasure.  As I see it, a baby Portuguese Water Dog brings responsibility with the privilege of ownership.  Whitby’s behavior and attitude provides daily confirmation that dogs thrive when they can use their remarkable talents in ways that challenge their capacity. Our breeders can often predict that one of the breed would make a good rescue dog while another, a good therapy dog. The advantages to the dogs are many: 

1.    Like people, dogs thrive with interesting work in their lives.

2.    Training a canine/human team keeps dogs out of rescue

3.    Dogs get great reinforcement from a world in which they work


Owning a “working dog” is very important for the owner:Successful dog ownership brings deep meaning and satisfaction:

1.    Karen Allen, a Research Psychologist at SUNY, Buffalo, studied comparative comfort from spouses and pets. She found that dog owners report the canines to be a better source of support than spouses! During increased stress to the owner, heartbeat became 30 beats a minute slower during comfort from their dog than from their spouse.  Allen attributes this to the non-judgmental stress from pets, while spouses are perceived as having a judgment, even when quiet. Clearly, how one’s dog behaves during owner stress really matters!

2.    Judith Siegel investigated 1000 older adults and found that those with pets had significantly fewer trips to their doctors. She concludes that  pets had a buffering effect as owner stress increased.  With a “graying society,” living with a canine good citizen can actually decrease health costs.

3.    Mary Pemberton, an Associated press writer, reported about dogs that help people with depression, bipolar disorder, panic disorder and agoraphobia.    Joan Froling, writing for IAADP (International Association of Assistance Dog Partners) compiled a long list of tasks which mitigate certain disabling illnesses classified as mental impairments under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Training reinforces what the dog does naturally, enabling emotionally trained service dogs to help treat the invisible disability of emotional illness. 

These tasks include fetching medications, calling “911” by pushing a large white button on the phone, opening the door by pulling a rope and barking for help, predicitng oncoming panic attack before the victim is aware of the attack, and distracting a terrified trauma victim in order to mitigate the intensity of the panic. THESE DOGS DIRECTLY TREAT MENTAL ILLNESS. As one victim of post-war trauma said, “This dog is my life line.”

4.    Dogs enable victims of psycho physiological illness resume normal working lives. They help them navigate subways, highways, and tough situations with bosses. They mitigate disabling social anxiety. Just as a dog for the blind provides necessary service, these dogs are central to the welfare of their owners. They enable life to be more normal.



Professionals trained to use a dog as a Clinical Assistant make faster progress with emotionally disturbed patients:  Whitby is one of thousands of dogs trained to assist with effective clinical mental health intervention.  Many of these dogs are owned  by a Mental Health Professional, who brings the dog to work, as I bring Whitby daily:

  1. Dr. Aubrey Fine, a Clinical Psychologist, describes multiple ways in which dogs help with outpatient therapy for autism, shyness, loneliness, aggressivity, and family stress. Sampling 27 teenage patients, he learned that the dog provides comic relief, makes therapy friendlier, quickens opening up to the therapist, and provides animation.  Dr. Fine concludes that all dogs have read Carl Rodgers, Ph. D., the dean of teaching psychologists that it is healing to have someone listen who doesn’t need to talk back.

  2. Dr. Aaron Katcher, now living in Texas after decades at the University of Pennsylvania, says that, despite the problems with research in the area, dogs as therapeutic assistants decrease symptoms, and increase good behavior.  His work validates that kids who look weird actually normalize facial expression when with a dog. They behave more cooperatively and independently during therapy with a dog present. The interaction with the animal regulates extreme behavior because a dog is a social other, an animal with a soul.

  3. The outpatient clinic at The University of Pennsylvania Department of Psychiatry recently began to work with trainers to enable patients to enjoy the benefits of a dog that is part of their treatment experience.


Canine Therapeutic Assistants deserve professional stature, and credit.  “My clinical partner has four paws,” I reported to the astute sprinkling of scientists and practitioners gathered informally at the coffee urn.  We were gathered for a research conference on the use of animals as therapeutic agents. James Serpell, Ph.D., visionary and pioneer in the academic documentation of the power of canines as therapeutic agents, had collected Drs. Katcher, Fine and others to help us figure out next steps for desperately needed research funding. Because I am on the faculty at Penn, I was fortunate enough to attend. Coffee would soon be over, and I continued dryly, “Would you like to see Whitby’s business card?” I dug into my briefcase for the parchment cards with the caricature of Whitby’s face and the byline “Hugs from Whitby Anderson, Canine Good Citizen”.  The cards always bring a smile to the recipient’s face, whether a distinguished academic colleague or a post-operative family in the Intensive Care Unit of Children’s Hospital, where Whitby and I are Paw Partner volunteers. A colleague pulled me aside and said “Judith, I did not know you were involved in this effort. What exactly does the dog DO that is so therapeutic in your practice?”  “So glad you asked,” I answered.  Let me give you an idea of a work week.”  And, I began to list some of the ways Whitby helps me do my job better, day after day:

1.    “So glad to see you!”  Whitby, waiting room Doc, hangs out and gets up for clients he knows. He stands quietly with tail wagging gently, and simply waits for pats. He is rarely disappointed. Clients feel welcomed, and have the relaxation of touching the soft hair of a non-shedding dog

2.    “Come back to visit me.”  “Whitby, time to say goodbye” I say as each client leaves the practice.  And Whitby gets up, does that famous looong stretch, and goes to the door to say goodbye.  What a delightful exit after a treatment hour that may have been psychosurgery for some clients.

3.    “We trundle along, side by side.”  Whitby and I model what a good relationship means.  We do not talk much. In fact, as with humans, intimate behavior is primarily non-verbal.  He plays with kids gladly and calms down on command.  He jumps up on the couch to snuggle gets off on command. He gets up to comfort someone who is crying when asked. He can demonstrate techniques for parenting through a bit of in-office clicker training for the clients. He is a delight to have as an associate.  

4.    “Cuddles “on command.  As a young pup in the practice, Whitby had the penchant to take a flying leap into the lap of a client...uninvited. To take  advantage of his love of “lapping up attention”, I clicker trained him to come onto the couch on cue.  Clients quickly learn to pat the couch and say “Cuddles!” clearly.  Whitby looks to me for permission, and jumps next to them on the couch.  He will touch them or not, as they choose.  He will sleep there while they talk, or interact with them. 

5.    “It’s the WAY that you say it.”Because of his affable temperament, Whitby does not mind serving as an example of the power of tone of voice in an intimate relationship.  I can ask him to do something gently, and he responds immediately. I can ask him to do the SAME thing with sarcasm, and he looks at me with that funny head tilt we all know.  He does all this for a cheerio. I can demonstrate the centrality of voice tone in marriage, and parenting in a way that saves face for clients. 

6.    Comic relief in a clinical setting.  Group therapy is often hard.  Folks cry, and have important “stuff” to handle.  Just as Shakespeare provided comic relief in his tragic masterpieces, so Whitby provides natural comic relief when he sleeps on his back, four paws going in four directions, and wriggles with pleasure.  He provides good will when he goes from group member to group member for his regular “pats”. He is  a delightful diversion that helps treatment.


Training Makes Therapy Possible.  I began to use a dog in the 1980s. Both the dog and I were untrained. Before I searched the universe for Whitby, I searched for outstanding trainers, to train ME to train my dog.  I found three trainers:  Judy Murray for the rigors of obedience , Sue Ailsby for brief encounters and long distance emails about clicker training, and Sabina Hower for specialized training in Assistance Dog expertise.  One trainer alone would not have been sufficient. For three years, Whitby and I learned together: we learned how to do clicker training by reading the psychology I have always loved and emailing Sue with questions.  We learned to  get more obedient together

despite my casual temperament. And, we participated in United Cerebral Palsy’s program for assistance dogs, where Whitby effortlessly became a Canine Good Citizen. Then we  became partners in both Therapy Dogs Incorporated and in the Delta Society. We went on to become Paw Partners at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, where we volunteer in the Intensive Care and Heart Transplant Units.  We do media work, teach graduate classes for colleagues who want to use their dogs professionally, and have made a brief news spot on using a dog to treat kids with cancer.


“Go treat those kiddos, Whitby”. Yesterday, we were in the city, and went up the elevator, to the fourth floor of our office suite.” On your way to work, Whitby?” One of the employees for the Philadelphia Orchestra greeted Whitby affectionately, as Whitby sidled over to him for a quick pat. “Have a good day healing all those kids.”  And this is how Whitby spends his time on his day jog: he meets, greets, snuggles up to, entertains, and is loved by hundreds of clients each year.  Most days, since Whitby came to us at six months of age, he has been a working dog in the Mental Health Biz.


Put Your Dog To Work” is the message I deliver each and every time someone invites me to speak about dog in mental health.  Give your pup the minimal training needed to become a Canine Good Citizen, and add to the richness of our working day for all those you serve. Breeders can ask potential owners plan to train their dog for the world of work and volunteering, and can make these matches a priority as they plan for future breeding variations in temperament. Owners can enrich their dogs’ lives by giving a working dog a day job.  Obedience trainers can alert new pup owners to the opportunities for volunteering once the pup is trained.  We need only to use the inherent work ethic in this breed to reduce the number of dogs going into rescue. We can set standards that pups need to be trained to be canine good citizens. We can set the expectation that a smart pup deserves to learn how to live well in our world through a bit of education.  The results of these minimal efforts produces its own reward many fold: heart-warming grins whenever the canine good citizen is present. Yup, I am convinced that Mr. Whitby Anderson, and the thousands of his four-legged colleagues throughout our world, say daily to whomever will listen, “I have the best job in the world!” 


*Judith Coche holds a dual faculty appointment at The University of Pennsylvania, in the Departments of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology. Since 1986 she has volunteered to train colleagues and dog owners to put their dogs to work in the mental health service delivery for families, lonely adults, children and adolescents.  jmcoche@earthlink.netreaches her.

Norris Clark