By Bennett Jochim, Masa Hanatate, Joshua Choi and Nuranissa Sofia, University of Washington Bothell School of Business

Rushing into the library to shelter from the rain, we found ourselves in a room with brightly lit fluorescent lights. A few moments later, Nola and her creamy white Siberian Husky, named Aura, walked in, wet from the rain outside. Nola’s bright purple jacket contrasted heavily with Aura’s cream-white coat. Aura was extremely calm walking in, and seemed to be looking forward to the water Nola offered her as they settled in. Nola put on a scarf with the logo Therapy Dogs International around Aura’s neck. Aura’s coat was so thick it made her look 20 pounds heavier than she is. She was very soft to the touch like the dawn stuffing from a quality jacket. 

Smokey Point Behavioral Hospital is a behavioral health hospital, located in Marysville, Washington, specializing in the treatment of mental health and substance abuse. Nola Kundu, a recreation therapist, is the director of the expressive therapy department. Aura is Kundu’s 4 year old therapy dog she takes into work a few times a week for the inpatients to enjoy Aura’s company.

What are the differences between the inpatient program and an outpatient program?

NK: The length of stay is usually 8-10 days. Outpatient can be one of 2 things. Intensive outpatients come in for 3 hours a day everyday or 3 days a week. [..] Right now it’s virtual since Covid [..]. They also have partial programs, our hospital doesn’t do a typical partial program. When I worked at Swedish Edmonds, patients would actually come and check in and they would join the groups that were going on and then check out.

How do you work with your patients with your dogs?

NK: […] Everybody’s welcome to and what we do is [that] we’ll go on the unit, [and] we’ll say, “okay guys, especially with the kids […] we’re gonna sit here [and] make a semicircle, so everybody can see the dog and be able to pet the dog”. And they talk about their own stuff. And if […] one of the patients started getting agitated […] and so, we’re like, “okay! It’s done. We leave.” […] And so, those sessions [are] over because I don’t wanna put the animal or handler in any danger […]. We have the therapist go with the handler and the dog […] So the therapist’s role is to keep an eye on the patients. We’re focused on the patients. That’s our role. And then, the handler’s job is to keep an eye on the dog.

How is using the therapy dogs as treatment different for inpatients and outpatients? 

NK: Since outpatients are virtual I imagine with virtual treatment it’s extremely different.

Even when they [outpatients] were live, we didn’t have them [the dogs] there. I’m still working on it. I’d like to expand that once things start coming back to the hospital again. We actually do take the dogs to the intake because a lot of times there’s an inpatient who’s really stressed out, it’s their first time coming in. So I’ll go down there and see if they want to see them [a therapy dog], and sometimes the staff want to see them too. Depending on the amount of time we have and how tired the dog is we’ll see them [the staff] too.

How do you feel the dogs in particular have helped reshape people’s conception of what intake or outpatients care is like?

NK: Well, I think that […] having that for our hospital is a good thing because people say, you know, a lot of times. The others [patients say], “this is the best therapy I have the whole time I’m here.” […] So, I think it does show that […] we have something good going on. Every day, every dog [goes as] far as that, and it turned out [well …]Patients that come back tell me, “I still have the card from last time I was here! Because when he [therapy dog] comes too!” […] and they still keep them. And if anybody sees them in the community too, they’ll be like “whoa! They have that”. So I think it does help with people’s misconceptions.

Can you describe any specific benefits that you’ve been observing in patients?

[50:20]

NK: Yeah, it decreases their stress. It decreases […] inappropriate behaviors […] It’s kind of interesting why. [Some patients don’t talk] to people, and they’re like “oh!” and they were really coherent, and they do that in our other groups too […] But specifically with the dogs, they’re like “Oh, hi! You know I used to have a dog?” […] They’re able to focus, and focusing is a lot for people that are […] actively psychotic […] That’s what I do with my groups. I just want them to focus […] Yeah, so specifically with the dogs, they [therapy dogs] decrease stress [and] anxiety [in patients] to calm down—to center their emotions.

Do you offer any resources for people who cannot afford treatment?

[48:11]

NK: […] The money thing, we accept everybody. And if they’re walk-ins, we have to take them if we have a bed. It’s state law that you have to take if they walk into your hospital. Have to take them. And if they can’t afford it, then we still have to take them. And so we have a lot of patients that are on Medicaid […] even if you have insurance. If you are detained by court, Medicaid picks up and pays for it. […] And we have financial counselors, so sometimes patients come in as self-pay because they’re […] not on medicaid [or] they don’t have any insurance. And so then, the financial counselor will go down and talk to them about what they have available. 

How has working with Smokey Pointe and therapy dogs affected your own mental health?

[47:30]

NK: Well, she’s mine [smiling and pointing to Aura], and I just love it. She gets all happy when she goes and it makes me feel good. It makes me feel good watching the patients, I absolutely love it. They’re so different, like I said sometimes they’ll lay on the ground or lay on another dog; I feel better after I’m with them.

Meeting Nola Kundu and Aura has been a delightful experience.

Nola Kundu has been a recreational therapist for the last 40 years and is the expressive therapy director at Smokey Point Behavioral Hospital. Nola showed us how her therapy dog, Aura, can make such a big impact on her patients. If you are interested in learning more about Smokey Point Behavioral Hospital, please visit their website to find more information about this hospital and the services they offer.


For mental health related resources and support, please also visit the NAMI Seattle website.