Treating Addiction Through Dog Ownership

Dr. Michael Hamrock, a Steward Medical Group primary care physician in Massachusetts, has been treating patients with addiction for over two decades. One of the first doctors in the state certified to prescribe Suboxone, which can help treat opioid addiction, he has long been at the forefront of innovative treatments.

Now, he’s testing a new treatment: dogs.

The idea for this innovative pilot program — titled Dog Ownership Enhancing Recovery, or DOER — came to Dr. Hamrock from tracking what sets patients who maintain their recovery apart.

“I noticed a common theme over the last 20 years — most of my patients who seem to maintain recovery, a lot of them have pet dogs,” he said. “It seems the dogs become a real stability factor in their lives. Having a pet helps them face some responsibility, accountability, and sense of purpose, which are critical to maintaining your recovery.”

Dr. Hamrock’s goal for DOER is to identify individuals from St. E’s medication assisted outpatient treatment program, which treats roughly 600 patients monthly with anti-addiction medication and counseling, who could benefit and connect them with training, dogs, and other supports like dog food and veterinary care. Then, he and his team will track their progress toward maintaining sobriety and compare their outcomes to others who aren’t part of the treatment program.

For the training and pets, Dr. Hamrock turned to another Steward health care professional: Pauline Hoegler, RN, BSN, CPDT — a cath lab nurse at Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton, MA, and a certified dog trainer who runs Golden Opportunities For Independence (GOFI), a non-profit that trains service animals for people with disabilities. The program will also be supported by Power Forward, a non-profit that works to end the stigma of addiction and champion those in recovery, which counts Dr. Hamrock as a board member.

While the program — the first of its kind in the country — is in its infancy, Dr. Hamrock is excited about the possibilities.

“Addiction is a tricky disease and we need to do more for people suffering from addiction beyond medication and counseling. Pet ownership could be an additional tool that we can use,” Dr. Hamrock told us. “We hope this takes off as an additional treatment for this really complicated brain disease.”