Atlanta, GA,
15:46 PM

Furry Friends with a Purpose

Donor-funded facility dogs help with therapy and bring smiles to patients.

Shepherd Center exercise physiologist Mary Ashlyn Thiede remembers a Shepherd Pathways client who was experiencing left-side neglect – a lack of awareness of visual spaces to the left. Despite the efforts of therapists at Pathways – Shepherd Center’s outpatient acquired brain injury (ABI) rehabilitation program – the client wasn’t making much progress.

In addition to therapeutic exercises they were working on, the therapists decided to also try a more creative approach and see if Barboza, Pathways’ facility dog, could help.

“We brought him into the session and laid him on her right side so she could see him,” Thiede recalls. “We had him put his head in her lap and helped her pet the top of his head, which helped her engage with him and become more invested.”

Then they stationed Barboza in front of the wheelchair on the right side and slowly had him move to the left – the therapists hoped the client would track with her eyes to see where he was going.

“After a few trials, she started to follow him,” Thiede says. “If we lost her tracking, we would start over. With time and repetition, she was able to increase her ability to look to the left side. Barboza created the motivation for her.”

This is just one example of how Shepherd Center is using trained facility dogs – three* to be exact – to help clients and patients reach their therapy goals. Clients may play fetch to work on balance and weight shifting; learn verbal and nonverbal commands to communicate; comb the dogs’ fur and brush their teeth to work on fine motor skills. Sometimes, it’s just having a furry friend around to brighten their days that makes all the difference.

Shepherd Center’s facility dogs, made possible through donor support, know up to 40 commands – such as getting things out of a refrigerator, opening a door and pushing the button on the elevator – all activities that help facilitate the independence of the clients and patients they work with. They help with all aspects of therapy – physical, occupational, speech and even recreational therapy.

Barboza and his counterparts – Bentley and Galion – were given to Shepherd Center by Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that trains the dogs and provides them to individuals, facilities and organizations at no cost.

Bentley, who is nine years old, works with the physical therapists in the spinal cord injury (SCI) program. Galion, eight years old, works in speech therapy in the ABI inpatient program. All three dogs are LGX, or Labrador/Golden Retriever cross-breeds.

Thiede, who has been at Shepherd Center since 2011, worked with Bentley in the SCI inpatient program. When she transferred to Pathways, she spearheaded efforts to get a facility dog there as well. In 2014, she traveled to Orlando for an intensive two-week training program, learning about the history, emotions and reactions of dogs and how to communicate with them. At the end, she was paired with Barboza, who was two years old at the time. She is his official “handler” – he lives with her and comes to work with her every day.

“We are here for a purpose, to help motivate the patients to reach all of their goals,” Thiede says. But, she says, there’s more. “Dogs have this innate ability to provide unconditional love. They give love, support and companionship and don’t require anything in return.”

To support animal-assisted therapy at Shepherd Center, please reach out to Dean Melcher at 404-350-7306 or


*Shepherd Center now has six facility dogs (as of November 2020).

Written by Sara Baxter

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.