On My Way Home

There’s a new face in Dryden’s Employee Assistance Program office – a furry one. EAP manager Kathleen Christian has begun introducing a standard poodle named Ella into her work counseling employees and their families, and decided to share the experience in a blog. Through Ella’s perspective and her own, in coming weeks Dr. Christian will share the story of Ella the Therapy Dog’s arrival, training and impact at the center.

The use of animals in therapy is a growing practice. Wide-ranging clinical studies of its effectiveness have verified significant and positive results. Trained therapy animals like Ella are turning up in hospitals, nursing homes, counseling centers and elsewhere – anyplace they can offer human colleagues the comfort of a friendly nuzzle and some warm companionship. Follow Ella’s story here and help welcome her to Dryden!



Ella, NASA Dryden therapy dog on the right, plays with her canine friend Jack.

Ella, NASA Dryden therapy dog on the right, plays with her canine friend Jack


On My Way Home

10/8/10 – I could feel that this day would be different. No breakfast. Then a bath. I don’t like them.  I don’t like the grooming table, the brush, the scissors. Everything moves too fast. Two women came in a car. I liked them because I got to get down off the table and play. The women talked for a long time. I think they were talking about me. After awhile She put a rope on me. She took me outside and put me in the car. She sat with me in the back seat, and I liked that. She knew how to hug me the way standard poodles like me like to be hugged. It made me feel better. She said that someday soon we would go to work and that we would help people. I have no idea what that means. I don’t think dogs help people, and I think She may be confused about that.


After a long time we get out of the car. She says this place is home. I play with another dog, named Jack. He is kind to me and doesn’t growl or bite. Jack is showing me how to run really fast and jump down to the grass below, run some more and jump up to the path above. There are many new things to see and do and eat at home. Lots of trees, grass, stairs, flowers and sticks. She says not to eat the flowers. She doesn’t want me to eat the rocks, either. The horses scare me, but the cats don’t. I can hear chickens, but I can’t see them. All the other animals are on the other side of the fence. Sometimes I bark at them. She says not to. I do it anyway.


She takes me in the car almost every day. One day we walk down a street where there are a lot of cars and sounds. There are some ladies with red hats on coming out of a place that smells good. We walk toward them. The first lady talks very, very loud in a high voice that makes me nervous. The lady walks fast over to me, stares at me and her hands come fast toward my face. There is another lady behind her making barking noises like a small dog. I sit next to Her; I want to run, but She doesn’t run, so I try hard to be still. She looks down and I can tell She is uncomfortable, too. She tells the lady I’m a puppy and maybe the lady needs to leave me alone today. We walk away. I’m glad we are leaving. She tells me she is sorry, that was the wrong place to go.


I never knew there was this kind of world. I feel tired. She lets me sleep as much as I want to and lets me sleep at night on her bed. I really like that. She says when I go to work I am going to meet a lot more people and that I might help some of them. I’m not sure how that will happen. I don’t think she does, either.


Kathy’s note: Ella seems to be making a great transition. Although I have raised many dogs, I am a little bit surprised at her demeanor with people. She is definitely not a wiggly, jumping-on-everyone puppy. I think the best word to use for her is “contemplative.” Unfortunately, there is a fine line between contemplative and afraid. At such a young age, this training will ask a lot from her. Her ability to trust me implicitly will be a critical element, and I realize that the energy I project when greeting people will make a big difference. I am looking forward to her first day at work on Oct. 18. I expect surprises and challenges for both of us. As a therapy dog at NASA, there will be many situations she will have to handle. She will need to learn to deal effectively with employees under a tremendous amount of stress, not to mention all varieties of aircraft, associated equipment and facilities and all the smells, sights and sounds that accompany them. The adventure begins!


Next: Ella’s first day at work.

Meet Ella – NASA Dryden's new therapy dog

By Kathy Christian
Employee Assistance Program

NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

Dryden's therapy dog

I am a clinical psychologist at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. I have been manager of the center’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for 12 years. 

Image Right:  Ella, NASA Dryden’s new therapy dog.

The EAP office at DFRC is staffed by two individuals, a pre-doctoral intern named Monique and myself. We provide psychological services to employees and their dependents for problems such as depression and anxiety. We are also involved with consultations with supervisors and managers regarding employee-related problems. We lead the Critical Incident Stress Management Team and are also part of the Emergency Operations Center, which is lead by the Office of Protective Services. We are involved in training of employees on a variety of topics, from workplace violence to stress and burnout.  

During my time at Dryden, I have made it my goal to provide a confidential service that employees view as supporting the center’s mission. A healthy workplace is made up of employees who have good morale and whose stress is under control. I believe that the success of the EAP can be determined, in part, by the impact it has on these factors.

I have always tried to look for ways to create the best EAP office possible. I look for ways to leverage my 27 years as a psychologist to help make Dryden a great place to work. There are people who have doubts as to the usefulness of such services, but it is my experience that they are in the minority.

About six months ago I read about Arnold the Therapy Dog. Arnold is an English mastiff that is owned and handled by Jon Fishman, who provides his services to employees and their dependents at Edwards Air Force Base. It has been said that he is the only individual on the base who can visit the air base commander without an appointment. That says a lot in a military setting, I think.

The use of animals to help humans has a long and distinguished history. Most people are aware of guide dogs for the blind and hearing ear dogs. These are called service dogs, and they are most often utilized in situations where one specially trained dog provides specific services to one human partner.  
The therapeutic use of dogs (and other animals) reaches much farther, however, and also includes what have come to be called therapy dogs, used by one handler for the benefit of many people. Studies have shown that nursing home residents who are given their meals in view of an aquarium consume more food and gain more weight than those served their meals in their room or in a dining area. This has a big impact on their health and overall well-being. Individuals in hospitals where therapy dogs are utilized often recover faster and report less pain during recovery. The list of the positive effect of animals on humans is long. I wondered what sort of unique effect a therapy dog might have in a workplace like Dryden.

I have been around dogs my entire life. When I was in college, I started raising and showing Australian shepherds. I was involved in conformation, obedience and herding-dog competitions. I also became involved in those activities with border collies. These are two very smart breeds and I had a really great time with this hobby for about 20 years. Marriage, children and work came along, and I had less and less time for my hobby. Today my only dog is a border collie named Jack.

When I read about Arnold, I started to think of my own work at NASA and wondered whether having a therapy dog like Arnold might bring another dimension of services to the EAP program. I set about doing a lot of research in order to “get smart.”

I pitched the idea to leaders here at the center and got their approval to give my idea a try. I had been thinking about what kind of dog would be the best to choose. Often, therapy dogs are adopted from a shelter or the Humane Society. After a lot of research I decided that I wanted to get a young dog and the breed best suited for this endeavor would be a standard poodle. For those not familiar, this breed is known for many things, among them their intelligence and solid temperament. They don’t shed and so are far less likely to trigger an allergic response in humans. I had never had contact with this breed, but from talking to others who had and with breeders, I decided to give them a try.

I did some more research and found a woman who had very young puppies and a few older dogs. She took great pains to make sure that her dogs were of the highest caliber, both in physical health and temperament. I spoke with her on the phone and told her I was looking for a therapy dog candidate. She told me she had a six-month-old black female that she thought would make an ideal therapy dog. I drove to her home and met Ella. Needless to say, Ella came home with me. This would be a true adventure. I had done my homework and read several books on training a therapy dog. In my previous experiences with dogs, the relationship in terms of their work was one of “human-commands-canine.” In the world of therapy dogs, though, the partnership is different. It might best be described as  “human presents canine that interfaces with other humans.” I believed I was ready for the challenge.

By the end of her first week at work, it was clear that Ella’s impact on Dryden Flight Research Center would far exceed my expectations. Monique and I were honestly amazed. The reaction to even the idea of a dog at the center was immediate, wide-spread and almost exclusively positive. This was going to be a truly incredible journey—one I knew would be a challenge as well as a learning experience for all involved.  

I thought it would be a good idea to share this journey with others, and wondered if a blog might be a good way to do so. So many factors would be involved—Ella’s impact on the employees, the employees’ impact on Ella—and all of the challenges and lessons that surely lay ahead for Ella and me. I thought about all the ways that I could share the experiences leading up to the ultimate impact of one dog on a community of NASA employees. I decided that it was through her eyes that this blog might make the most sense. With what I was coming to realize is her patience-beyond-her-six-months-on-this-planet wisdom, I had a strong feeling she would blossom into this role which, for all of us involved, might prove to be life-changing.

Making The Grade

11/12/10 –

  This is the end of my fourth week at work. There are so many new things I get to see and do. The people aren’t so anxious, and they don’t lean down so fast when they see me. She seems calmer, too. The people know my name. I like to hear it down the hallways and when they come into Her office. When we walk into the big buildings, I hear my name come from out of doorways, or from far down the hall. Sometimes we stop and talk to the people. They touch me and I like that a lot.

  Image right:  It’s official! Ella gets a badge and she’s ready to go to work.

  I feel good here. I like to walk out ahead of Her, but She tells me to come back by Her side. I don’t need Her so much anymore. I have lots of people now; luckily, they don’t come home with us – I think they just stay here until we come back.  

  Today we went to a place to get my badge. A nice man in a blue uniform took my picture. The picture is on a piece of plastic now. It is just like Hers. It makes me feel proud, and really part of the pack here.

  Kathy’s note – Unlike service dogs such as guide dogs for the blind, therapy dogs often start their career as adults. They are sometimes acquired from animal shelters or other rescue organizations. Starting Ella’s training when she was a six-month-old pup means that it may take a bit longer than normal to know whether she has the kind of temperament that will make her good at this. She can be tested for certification after she is one year old. But even if she passes those first tests, it doesn’t mean she will have the kind of positive impact I hope for.  

  Ella’s first weeks have been exciting. She has blossomed from being reserved and rather overwhelmed to being overtly happy and welcoming to most of the people she meets. In fact, it is now time to start the next phase of training. She is very good on the leash, but now she is starting to want to walk ahead and take the lead. I understand that not everyone wants to touch her, and so she has to learn to wait to be told by me that she can greet someone. I am struggling with her initiative. Like working with a shy or uncertain child just coming out of their shell, there is a point at which some discipline must be applied. Timing will be very important. I think I’ll wait for a few more weeks; I don’t want to start too soon lest she become discouraged.

  Image right:  Ella gets some cyber-security tips from Dryden officer Joe Coram.

  Ella had her first encounter with an aircraft tug, a substantial and noisy machine. She was unfazed when it came out of a hanger door chugging and sounding its horn as safety dictates. She was happy to stand and get affection from the driver.  

  Perhaps the most exciting and momentous experience was her introduction to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Each NASA center has a director, and on each Monday they all gather at their various locations to have a virtual meeting with Mr. Bolden. Every center has a room especially for these kinds of meetings, complete with cameras, microphones and a giant screen on which all of the center representatives appear. The Dryden center director, David McBride, asked me to bring Ella to this meeting. Ella had been here just four weeks. We went up to the room and waited in the back for the meeting to start. As the meeting progressed, it was getting close to the time when each center director would give a short report. Mr. McBride asked me to bring Ella up next to him so that she would be on camera. She is still learning to jump up into chairs on command, so I hoisted her up so as not to make too big of a commotion. Luckily, she cooperated and sat quietly. As people began to notice the unusual (if not unprecedented) sight of a dog at the meeting, I started to hear comments and giggles. One person said, “Hey, it’s the Dryden dog.” Another remarked, “I bet she saved someone’s life.”

  It was now Dryden’s turn, and Mr. McBride began to introduce Ella. It had been almost 10 minutes and I was worried that she would start to get restless and jump out of the chair.  This was her big moment, and she needed to make a good impression. Mr. McBride explained that she was a therapy dog in training and part of the Employee Assistance Program. As if she were a seasoned actress making her most important audition, she took the cue and made what I think was a lasting impression: looking right at the camera, she gave her biggest, most dramatic puppy yawn ever. Laughter ensued from across the country and throughout the NASA leadership. I believe she got the part.

Workin' for a Livin'

There’s a new face in Dryden’s Employee Assistance Program office – a furry one. EAP manager Kathleen Christian has begun introducing a standard poodle named Ella into her work counseling employees and their families, and decided to share the experience in a blog. Through Ella’s perspective and her own, in coming weeks Dr. Christian will share the story of Ella the Therapy Dog’s arrival, training and impact at the center.

The use of animals in therapy is a growing practice. Wide-ranging clinical studies of its effectiveness have verified significant and positive results. Trained therapy animals like Ella are turning up in hospitals, nursing homes, counseling centers and elsewhere – anyplace they can offer human colleagues the comfort of a friendly nuzzle and some warm companionship. Follow Ella’s story here and help welcome her to Dryden!


10/18/10 – No breakfast this morning. I hope there isn’t going to be another bath. She brushed me last night and said tomorrow we go to work. What is this place? She says this is Dryden Flight Research Center and She is going to explain more, later. It looks huge and there aren’t many trees and there is no grass anywhere. It smells like dried plants and something else – She says it is jet fuel. This is work? Where will I run with Jack? We go inside a big building with strange glass doors. We walk down a long hallway into a room that smells like Her. She puts a big blanket down on the floor with some of my toys. She brought a bowl with water and gives me breakfast. At least I’m not hungry any more. We go outside and walk past very, very big buildings. She says this one is the hangar. Some day, She says, I will run and play in there. She says I will make the people happy. We walk across more concrete than I have ever seen, and go behind a building. She says this is where I can go for a private “bio break.” Lots of smells – I can’t see any animals except birds, but I can smell cat, rabbit, squirrel, and even something that smells like a wild dog. Where are the animals that belong to these smells?


I follow her up more stairs than I have ever seen. This is very hard. They are steep. She tells me I am a good girl. We go to a large room with more people than I have ever seen, and they are sitting very close together. This is confusing. The people make me worried.  I sit next to Her. Some people come up and hold up the back of their hand in front of my face. There is no food there. I don’t know what I am supposed to do with their hands. Some people try to grab me after they show me their hand. They talk loud and move their face very close to me and stare at my eyes. I feel afraid and I don’t know what to do, but I try not to move. She talks to them. She talks to me in a calm voice then the people go away. I lay down on the floor and go to sleep. It’s better that way.


10/20/10 – She talks to people when they come into our office. I want to lay down behind Her desk, on my bed that she put there for me. Instead, She puts the leash on me and brings me around to sit between Her and the people. I lie down and go to sleep. Some of them talk to me, some of them don’t.


A man comes to the office and sits on the couch. He talks softly to me and I sit closer to him. Then he sits on the floor and I lay down next to him. This is good. She gives him a dog cookie, and he gives it to me.


A lady comes in and sits down. She doesn’t talk to me. Something about her is different and I get up and sit next to her leg. I like leaning on her, and she lets me.


10/22/10 – She takes me outside in front of the hangar. Some very big men walk toward us, and say, “Hey, is she the mascot?” They are happy, and want to talk about me and ask Her questions.


On the other side of the hangar, we see another man. She says he is an engineer. He comes over and tells Her that he doesn’t own dogs and doesn’t like them much. He talks to Her and ignores me. After a few minutes, he gets low to make his face level with mine. He doesn’t grab me or get too close, so I sit next to Her, waiting. Then he touches me and it feels okay. I lie down, even though the concrete is very cold. He lies down next to me! Then when he stands up and walks away, I feel like something is different. She seems calm, and I feel proud.


When we go back to the office, a man and a woman come and sit down. The man is crying. The woman is very, very uncomfortable. I want to be next to the woman, so I get up and sniff her. I sit with her and she puts her hand softly on my head. I lie down there and sleep. When I wake up, they are leaving.


Kathy’s note: Ella’s first week at work has been exciting and surprising. Although I expected people to react to her in a positive way, I never guessed they would react so strongly. On Tuesday and Thursday when Ella stayed home, each person I would see in the hallway would ask where she was. Everyone knows her name, even people I have never spoken to. My co-worker, Monique, is peppered by questions about her from people all across the center.


I am surprised by how overwhelmed Ella has been and how awkward many employees have acted around her. Employees find it difficult to slow down in their approach and I have had to be very assertive in order to help them – and her – learn to interact. In my office, Ella reacts to some people and sleeps through the hour with most. It remains to be seen whether she will be able to adapt effectively to this environment. I know that, for both of us, challenges lie ahead.