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It’s hard to know who loves Envy most, between the patients who put their arms around her soft neck, and the staff who use her in their work at the Lincoln Regional Center.

The golden retriever that joined the state psychiatric hospital staff in October does what therapy dogs do best: She calmly accepts everyone.

"When people hold Envy it is very comforting," said one patient participating in a therapy group with the dog. "She’s soft. She’s calm. She’s a good listener." said one patient participating in a therapy group with the dog.

“And she doesn’t back talk,” said another patient.

Envy, the first therapy dog to be used in a Nebraska regional center, got there through Lincoln-based Domesti-PUPS and was trained by a Lincoln Correctional Center inmate.

Several therapists suggested getting a dog because they’d seen how effective the dogs can be at other agencies. In particular, they were impressed by George, a half black Lab and half St. Bernard, at the Child Guidance Center.

Program director Charles Darrow, a psychologist, ran the idea through the bureaucratic channels and found funding -- $3,500 for dog and handler training -- through a Region V Behavioral Services grant.

Envy is the champagne of dogs, said staff member Rachel Johnson.

"She’s bred to be the best, sweet, sparkling presence."

Envy is not a service dog. She’s a therapy dog.

Her employee picture hangs alongside those of both the therapists and techs. And she’s got her own employee identification badge at the Lincoln center, which serves people with mental illness who need very specialized psychiatric services in a highly structured treatment setting.  

Service dogs are individually trained to perform tasks and do work that mitigates their handlers’ disabilities, according to literature provided by Domesti-PUPS.

Therapy dogs provide psychological or physiological therapy to individuals other than their handlers. They have stable temperaments and friendly, easy-going personalities and are encouraged to socialize with a variety of people while they’re on duty.

Johnson, the religious coordinator at the Regional Center, takes Envy with her to the men’s treatment program.

Some men haven’t been around animals for years, and there's something about that guy-dog bond, Johnson said.

She watches the men relax as they play with Envy. The dog brings out the men’s nurturing, caring, giving spirits.

Envy also helps out at an occupational therapy group, fetching a plastic Easter egg with a question inside for each patient. Then the patient discusses the question. And pets the dog.

Envy works the day shift, 8:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., helping in group and individual therapy sessions, just sitting with individuals, always calm, ready to be petted.

When she’s not at work, Envy lives with Facility Operating Officer Stacey Werth-Sweeney and her husband, 11-year-old son, two cats and a turtle.

And at home, Envy is all young dog, sometimes racing around, letting go of that young dog energy.

“We call it the zoomies,” Werth-Sweeney said.

But when she's wearing her red work vest, she’s all business.

As a puppy, Envy was so shy she almost didn’t make the cut for training. But, like the patients she works with, Envy has overcome.

She doesn't like loud noises and things on wheels. When she first arrived at the Regional Center, she was afraid of the cart that carries materials for group activities from building to building. She was leery of the treadmill and the elliptical used for exercise group. But she’s getting over those fears.

Envy helps patients with communication skills and with acceptance, hygiene, mindfulness, boundaries, empathy and patience, said the therapists who use her daily.

Her limitations are based only the staff's creativity, said Jennifer Bennetts, occupational therapist.

Patients get to touch her and pet and hug her. And that touching is something probably missing in the Regional Center setting, Bennetts said.

She makes people feel empowered.

Patients are learning Envy’s commands. Sit, stay, bring it, drop it, leave it, look at me, lay down, go visit.

And it feels good because she does what they tell her to do, said Johnson. 

“Our patients have little of that.”

Participation in men’s groups increased noticeably when Bennetts began taking Envy with her.

One female patient talked on and on about Envy, the longest conversation she’s had during her stay at the center, said Mike Satterly, activities specialist.

Another has a picture of Envy as a puppy in her room.

“I look at it and it calms me,” she said.

Said another: “No matter what mood I’m in, she will love me up.”

Envy knew 50 commands when she arrived and has mastered at least another 20 in the past few months.

And she’s learning how to pray, said Johnson.

“Every day, she trains me.” 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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