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Therapy dogs are helping this EPA regional office handle stress

The pilot program comes amid decline in staff numbers.

The EPA Denver headquarters has a monthly therapy dog program. (Credit: GETTY IMAGES / DIANA OFOSU)
The EPA Denver headquarters has a monthly therapy dog program. (Credit: GETTY IMAGES / DIANA OFOSU)

On a sunny Thursday morning in May, a group of therapy dog volunteers left the heat behind as they entered a Denver office building on Wynkoop Street. They were there to see the staff working at the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 8 headquarters.

The handlers and their companions made their way through airport-like security, showing their photo I.D., scanning any bags, and walking through a magnetometer, before signing in at the reception desk and being escorted to a conference room. The visit marked nearly a year since the “Dog Days at EPA” pilot program began.

Since June 2017, therapy dogs have been providing stress relief services to those working in the regional EPA office. With the headquarters based in Denver, Colorado, those serving Region 8 are responsible for overseeing more than 10 million residents across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.

The region covers six states including Utah, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, and 27 tribal areas. Water, mining, and Superfund sites are among the numerous environmental issues Region 8 staff deal with on a daily basis.

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For about an hour each month, the dogs and their handlers spend time with EPA staff, according to emails and visitor logs obtained by ThinkProgress via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

On the first visit, roughly 70 employees came to see the therapy dogs. “It was an excited, enthusiastic crowd!” wrote Suzanne Bohan, assistant regional administrator for enforcement, compliance, and environmental justice. She is also a licensed therapy dog handler.  

It was Bohan’s idea to “provide much needed stress relief to employees,” as she described in a May 2017 email to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

The Alliance of Therapy Dogs is a national nonprofit group that organizes volunteers and their dogs to visit airports, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and rehab facilities. The main job of a therapy dog is to provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals (unlike a service dog that is trained to help a person better perform specific tasks).

Some of the dogs the EPA were connected to for the monthly visits. (Credit: FOIA / DIANA OFOSU)
Some of the dogs the EPA were connected to for the monthly visits. (Credit: FOIA / DIANA OFOSU)

As Bohan described in her internal pitch for the pilot program last year, “Dogs excel as therapeutic agents.” Not only do studies show that therapy dogs help decrease blood pressure and stress levels, but they can “increase overall well-being and stimulate the mind in dramatic ways,” Bohan wrote. Other benefits include “taking a person’s mind off of problems and worries,” helping people communicate with one another, sharing their emotions and stories, as well as “bringing joy and laughter.”

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As the Trump administration assumed power and Scott Pruitt began implementing his agenda at the EPA, agency staff across the country were feeling demoralized, according to a Washington Post report from last April. Words such as “fearful,” “bleak,” and “grim” were dotted throughout the story.

Last year, President Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 specifically targeted the EPA for staff and budget cuts. The proposal, released in May 2017, indicated plans to cut the budget by $2.6 billion and reduce EPA staff numbers by more than 3,000 — roughly a fifth of the staff level at the time. The proposal was met with widespread criticism and was ultimately rejected by Congress.

Staff levels have nonetheless dropped in the months since. Between April and December 2017, more than 700 EPA employees either retired, took voluntary buyouts, or quit. It represented the second-highest exodus of employees from the agency in nearly a decade. According to January 2018 figures, more than 1,200 staff had left.

And EPA Region 8 went nearly nine months — until October 2017 — without an appointed administrator after the election.

Staff numbers there have also been declining. According to an EPA brochure, about 500 people worked in the Denver office in March 2017. This February, the number had dropped to approximately 475. (In 2011, it was as high as 775 EPA personnel.)

With employees leaving or retiring, and no ability to re-hire, some staff have been pulling double and triple duty.

Compounding the stress of losing staff, the Denver headquarters is in the middle of downgrading office space. So any efforts by managers to help relieve some stress helps everyone do their jobs better.

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Roughly 20 to 50 staff meet three or four therapy dogs each month. Some of the handlers that have been connected to the EPA include owners of a pug, a Goldendoodle, an “adorable, gentle” German Shepherd named Sayde, and a “gentle giant” Newfoundland named Torrey.

“Things can get a little stressful. Animals who can love unconditionally… just gives you a bit of your energy back,” an EPA employee told ThinkProgress. “If there’s a way, if we can relieve just the slightest bit of stress, I think that’s phenomenal.”