Therapy dogs across Grounds available for stress-relief and counseling

U.Va. chemistry department, Women’s Center and School of Nursing host dogs that contribute to the well-being of members in the University community

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Besides offering stress relief for students, some dogs at the University play a role in therapy and counseling.

Andrew Walsh | Cavalier Daily

As midterm season ends and as finals week approaches, students’ stress levels may be on the rise. Dogs, however, are there to help with stress levels and are available for therapy or friendly visits at multiple locations across Grounds, including the Chemistry Building, the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center and the School of Nursing. 

While some dogs, such as those at the Chemistry Building are mainly there for stress relief, other dogs — like those as at the Women’s Center — are available for personalized, one-on-one or group therapy sessions.

Since November, the chemistry department has opened their offices about one day per week for professors, graduate students and undergraduates to bring their dog in as part of the CHEM Pups program.

This program was started when Cindy Knight, the chemistry department’s administrative assistant and undergraduate studies coordinator, recognized the stress-relieving benefits of having dogs available for students to interact with at the University. 

“I had this idea of having a pup come in,” Knight said. “Simply because they’re proven for stress relief and the fact that our students away from home have probably left their pups at home.”

They have created a CHEM Pups logo and are hoping to get vests for the pups, as well as to start partnering with the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA to bring in dogs in the hopes that they may get adopted. 

Although most of the dogs brought in for the CHEM Pups program are not trained therapy dogs, they still put a smile on the students’ faces and help them take a break from school work. 

Third-year College student Emmit Pert said that as an out-of-state student, he misses his dog at home, so visiting dogs at the Chemistry Building is something he enjoys and views as a positive influence.

“It’s not going to fix my problems if I just have a stressful course load,” said Pert, “I’m still going to be stressed, but it’s always a really positive experience going … It’s a nice little quality of life thing.”

According to Knight, the program not only helps students with their stress, but also opens up a space for communication and collaboration with other students. Knight said that she has seen students networking, giving each other advice and helping each other while hanging out with the pups. 

Alyssa Montalbine, second-year chemistry major in the College, said in an email, “[CHEM Pups is] also wonderful because you never know what new, quirky and interesting people you will meet, who not only share your love for this wide-spanning field [of chemistry], but also ‘man’s best friend.’” 

Knight said that the program has had positive responses from students, faculty, owners and the dogs themselves. 

“The dogs go home exhausted, so the owners are thrilled,” Knight said. “The dogs are happy because they’re not left home alone all day and the students are happy because who doesn’t want to hang out with a pup all day?” 

Besides offering stress relief for students, some dogs at the University play a role in therapy and counseling.

Cathy Erickson — a trauma counselor at the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center — works with Poe, a trained therapy and psychiatric service dog. She does one-on-one and group therapy sessions and provides her clients with the option of having Poe present in them.

According to Erickson, Poe takes on the emotions of the people who visit him  — students, faculty and staff  — during his office hours and therapy sessions. 

Neuroimaging studies are showing that when animals, especially cats and dogs, look at their owners or people they are familiar with, their brains light up similar to the way people’s do when looking at a loved one, according to Erickson.

“So when they’re looking at us, they’re really looking at us with love and affection and it’s something we all need,” Erickson said. “Every human being needs this to connect.” 

If an individual has been through a traumatic experience, Poe can help them feel connected to and trusting of other people again with trust and communication skills exercises. For instance, Erickson’s clients practice being vulnerable and saying something to Poe that may be harder to say to a person. 

“One way to rebuild trust is to start with an animal,” Erickson said, “It’s easier to see yourself connecting to an animal that’s calm and loving than a human being sometimes.” 

Another mindfulness-based intervention that Poe is often involved in is grounding — an exercise to help an individual focus on the present rather than worrying about the future or trying to rethink the past, according to Erickson. 

“We spend so much of our time cognitively in the past or in the future, and the most peaceful place we can be is in the present,” Erickson said. 

Poe helps people feel grounded by activating their senses. This includes touching his fur to looking at him in the eyes. 

As part of their Compassionate Care Initiative, the University’s School of Nursing tries to help lower stress levels associated with schoolwork with their own therapy dog, Kenny. 

Kenny’s owner, Asst. Prof. of Nursing Edie Barbero, said that she brings him to exams or classes to spread joy and to help students when they are going through tough times academically or emotionally. 

Barbero teaches a course called Oncology Nursing and End-of-Life Care, which is a course that can be emotionally taxing at times.

“Sometimes it’s hard for the students working with patients with cancer, so I’ll bring him into that class when I know they’ve had some hard stuff in the hospital with their patients to make them feel a little better,” Barbero said. 

Kenny can also often be found in the University Hospital’s lobby and eye clinic. He’s there to put a smile on people’s faces when they are waiting to be cared for, Barbero said. 

Erickson said that dogs in a variety of different settings and roles — whether they are therapy dogs, emotional support animals or service dogs — are good for people.

“I see so many benefits to the human-animal relationship, whether it’s in a therapy session or out of one,” Erikson said. “There’s so many positive benefits to feeling very connected to this living creature that simply desires to be in our presence.”

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