Paws That Refresh
Therapy Dog Delights Mission Kenya
By Thomas Kerrihard, M.D., regional medical officer/psychiatrist, U.S. Embassy in Nairobi
A 110-pound German shepherd dog named Forest has for two years helped the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi’s staff find time to take a break, smile and play. But that’s no surprise: Forest is the State Department’s first “therapy dog.”
As a Regional Medical Officer/ Psychiatrist, I own, trained and handle Forest, who provides therapeutic support to staff members. The Office of Medical Services supports using Forest in this way. Like many certified therapy dogs, Forest is used to foster a light and playful spirit among employees who have faced numerous hardships in recent years. Mental health professionals know that taking short breaks during the workday reduces stress and increases productivity; Forest is a medical intervention intended to encourage these breaks.
Embassy Nairobi, rated critical for crime and terrorism, is Africa’s largest U.S. embassy, with more than 2,000 people under Chief of Mission authority. In recent years, local home invasions and car-jackings, the threat of election-related violence and, worst of all, the horror of last September’s terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi have created an environment in which feeling overwhelmed and burned out could become widespread unless employees and family members learn proactive techniques to manage stress. Teaching and reinforcing such techniques is a key responsibility for a post’s health unit, and ours relies on Forest to help with stress relief. His visits to the embassy encourage staff to pause and take time to smile and laugh with co-workers. He reminds them that play is important—and therapeutic.
Forest has been strongly endorsed by Ambassador Robert F. Godec, who says he always appreciates a visit to the front office from Forest. “Forest has been a wonderful addition to our embassy community,” Godec said. “Forest brings us together and helps everyone to smile, even on the toughest days.”
Forest arrived in the Office of Medical Services in 2011 and at Embassy Nairobi, his first overseas posting, in early 2012. At a 2013 awards ceremony, Godec presented him with an honorary embassy badge.
When Forest comes to work, his schedule is busy. The Community Liaison Office announces the days of his visits in advance through emails, in the embassy newsletter and on closed-circuit informational screens throughout embassy buildings. Calls and emails then start coming into the health unit from embassy departments, sections, office groups, individual employees and family members requesting a visit, and if that doesn’t work, there’s always “Frisbee with Forest,” scheduled every two to three hours on the chancery front lawn.
Locally Employed (LE) Staff, American staff and Eligible Family Members have all reported benefits from their brief encounters with Forest. While Americans generally accept dogs as a source of fun, many Kenyans are less exposed to well-trained dogs and more familiar with guard dogs or untamed animals on the street. As a very large German shepherd, Forest can be frightening and intimidating at first. Discovering his therapeutic benefits took a little more time for many of the LE Staff, but many are now some of Forest’s greatest fans.
Thus, Forest has become a cultural diplomat, giving many Kenyans their first exposure to a well-trained, friendly dog and shifting their general attitude toward animals as pets. Many Kenyans at post now appreciate the value of a therapy dog and have come to understand the important role pets play in Americans’ lives. In fact, hardly a day goes by now without my hearing Kenyan staffers say, “How is Forest today?” “When is Forest coming back?” or “We miss Forest.”
For many Kenyans, Forest has been their first opportunity to touch a dog, let alone to “shake hands” or play Frisbee. I keep Forest on a tight leash around anyone who expresses hesitancy about close contact. However, an amazing transformation typically takes place after a few times watching Forest follow commands, fetch balls and enjoy the affection and attention of strangers. The local staff members are now among the most eager for Forest’s next embassy visit.
“Kenyans are hesitant around all pets because of our cultural upbringing,” observed Roselyn Linguli, who works as a customer service representative. She said she’d learned that dogs were to protect and cats were to keep rats away. “Forest made me appreciate dogs, and being a therapy dog made it more interesting when I considered his ability to bring calm to people.”
“Nothing beats playing Frisbee with Forest,” added Elizabeth Kimani, a Kenyan shipping assistant in the General Services Office.
Americans at post are also wild about Forest. Jeffrey Cernyar, an FSO who serves as representative to U.N. Environmental Program, said he brought his children, age 9 and 11, to meet Forest and found the dog’s obedience impressive. They tried some of that training on their own German shepherd and “find that she really enjoys the structure and attention, and responds very intelligently.”
Kenyans outside the embassy enjoy Forest, too. In public spaces, such as the Karura Forest near the embassy, they respond positively when they see Forest dive into streams and ponds to fetch sticks. He brings the stick to them and eagerly waits for them to join the game. He is routinely the object of group photos with Kenyan children and adults. The shift from fear and skepticism to laughter and joy is commonplace when Kenyans witness Forest’s obedient and playful behavior.
Forest’s certification/registration comes from Therapy Dogs International, one of several recognized therapy dog organizations that provide testing, certification, insurance and registration of volunteer therapy dogs. Therapy dogs are not service dogs, such as seeing-eye dogs for the visually impaired, nor are they trained to assist individuals with disabilities. Instead, they are trained and certified to provide affection and comfort to people in difficult, lonely or stressful environments, such as hospitals and nursing homes. Some are even certified to offer comfort and emotional support to disaster victims and have assisted victims of the World Trade Center terrorist attack and Boston Marathon bombing.
Therapy dogs come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, skills and styles, but all must meet specified health and performance standards set forth by one of the recognized therapy dog organizations. They are tested for obeying commands and responding calmly in unpredictable situations. Therapy dogs must be comfortable with a variety of people, including children, the ill and those with mental health conditions.
Therapy dogs in the workplace are becoming more commonplace. I have seen therapy dogs decrease stress, increase morale and even foster interoffice relationships. The response to Forest at Embassy Nairobi has been immensely positive and productive.
Therapy dogs are not for everyone. There are psychological, cultural and medical reasons to proceed cautiously with them in
such locales as hospitals, where they are not allowed in the rooms of patients with compromised immune systems. Some people fear dogs, and handlers are trained to recognize that discomfort. But for most people, therapy dogs like Forest offer an amazing opportunity to improve work-life balance.