By Marci Narum

Sharing an office with someone can often present tension and anxiety. Not for Guy McCommon and his office partner, Cooper. In fact, it’s just the opposite—by design. Cooper makes people feel much more at ease when they visit Guy’s office at DeCoteau Trauma-Informed Care and Practice in Bismarck. The four-year-old golden retriever is a certified therapy dog with Love on a Leash. Guy is a licensed independent clinical social worker and therapist. He’s also Cooper’s owner and handler.

“My wife Linda and I got Cooper when he was nine weeks old. He’s our third golden retriever,” Guy shares. “We noticed right away that he’s such an engaging dog. He just likes to be with people.”

Dr. Tami DeCoteau is a licensed clinical psychologist and the owner of the clinic where Guy works. Her dog, Mo, is her regular companion in the office. Tami’s clinic is also home to a couple of bunnies. She says there has been extensive research on the use of animals in mental health therapy. She notes the significance of this therapy when working with the elderly and people who have experienced trauma.

“The research shows that animals have the ability to calm people down and take them out of that state of anxiety or agitation. Since we work with largely a population who has suffered trauma, it makes sense to have these types of animals here. And we also work with a large number of children in the foster care system,” Tami explains. “So it’s disarming to come in and see an animal, and it takes their level of anxiety down about being in therapy or being in a new environment.”

Guy’s experience in mental health therapy spans nearly three decades. He has helped children and adolescents, combat veterans, and victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Cooper has been his therapy partner for one year and Guy sees the difference it makes during sessions with his clients.

“Sometimes when we’re doing a session he’ll pick up on people’s moods very quickly,” Guy shares. “Some people don’t like him to bother them or get hair on them. So they’ll come in and sit down. He knows when someone doesn’t want to engage with him.”

Guy recalls a time when a woman didn’t want Cooper next to her during therapy.

“She became very distraught during the session. All of a sudden, Cooper got up and laid his head right in her lap. She broke down and cried, and she hugged him and let it out into the fur on the back of Cooper’s neck. It was a very big breakthrough for her therapeutically. The action of him coming over and putting his head on her lap was just enough of a catalyst to allow her to let her emotions go. It really helped with us working more effectively together.”

The silky smooth fur into which many of Guy’s clients shed tears is professionally groomed every month and is brushed at least four times a week.

“Everyone always comments about how soft and silky his fur is. When your job is to be petted, you’d better have soft fur,” Guys laughs. “The fur sometimes becomes a problem so I always carry a lint brush with me.”

Typically, therapy dogs visit hospitals, long term care facilities, and schools. Cooper gets to do that, but Guy says he’s not aware of other handlers who use therapy dogs with clients in mental health therapy in the Bismarck area.

“When they’re petting him, they are more open. It’s like their shield comes down. Cooper sits next to them and they are in tune to him, so when I ask them something, it comes automatically. They don’t think about it, they just respond because they are so engaged with him. It helps them feel more comfortable. Some of the younger kids, I think it helps them feel safer.

“It’s given me an opportunity to be more attentive to the unspoken things that people say and how they respond during our sessions. I can pick up their body mannerisms, their tone. It helps me read their moods more effectively. If I can see him cuing on something it helps me be a better therapist.”

Guy says a therapy dog’s job is to bring comfort. He’s grateful to share an office with one whose nature is to ease the anxiety and tension that is natural in his work environment.

“I consider Cooper my partner. I feel very blessed that he has that innate ability to be good at that and knows that his job is to engage people in a comforting manner and help  them feel better, and bring a smile to someone’s face.”