Four-legged friends unleash therapeutic benefits during finals week

Despite what appeared to be the makings of an upscale dog show taking over the campus library this spring, the premise proved false. Nevertheless, the same level of enthusiasm found at such an event proved to be just as contagious for Ivy Tech Community College Northeast faculty, staff, and students during finals week, May 6–10.

In total, nine dogs of excellent breeding, even temperament, and impeccable grooming graced the college with their respective handlers. The late morning-to-early afternoon appearances from these specially trained animals rested with a single objective: to provide stress relief for faculty, staff, and students in the midst of finals week. Petting, hugging, and massaging the dogs was strongly encouraged.

College libraries from Augusta State University in Georgia to Yale University in Connecticut have organized similar anti-anxiety interactions for their library patrons and are reporting positive results. The introduction of pet therapy in the Ivy Tech Library is believed to be a first at a college library in the Fort Wayne area.

Credit for the experiment goes to Assistant Professor of Human Services Ruth Davis and Ivy Tech Library Director Sharon Hultquist. These self-professed dog lovers discussed localizing the pet-therapy concept during finals week after reviewing an article on its practice in Pet Partners’ Interactions magazine. Davis’ own therapy dog, Piper, is certified by the Pet Partners organization and was profiled in the same issue.

“I asked Sharon why we weren’t doing this, and she said, ‘I’d love to do it, but I don’t know where to get the dogs.’ I told her, ‘You take care of the (college) administration; I’ll take care of the therapy dogs,’” Davis says.

With the division of labor determined, the two women went to work and accomplished their assignments. Each therapy dog invited to campus required a letter of training certification and liability insurance coverage.

“I thought everything went well,” Hultquist says. “We know that not only students get stressed out at the end of the semester, but also employees, especially with budgets, evaluations, and grades all due. We had many staff who took a few minutes to de-stress by coming to meet the dogs and share the love.”

Not just any dog can make it as a trophy dog, so to speak. Davis says therapy dogs must be certified approximately every two years from an animal-advocacy organization, such as Pet Partners, and they are trained to be a team player with their handler, in part by responding appropriately to neutral dogs and recovering quickly and calmly if startled.

According to Pet Partners, approximately 30 percent of the organization’s certified therapy animals are adopted from a shelter or rescue agency.

Piper is reflected in this demographic. Davis adopted him from an animal shelter in Bluffton, Ind., eight years ago, shortly after his scheduled euthanization had been postponed.

“It was fate,” Davis says. “He was meant to be my dog.”

Davis adds that Piper’s name comes from his former owner, who found the black shepherd mix near a culvert pipe in a rural area while the dog was still a puppy. 

When Piper turned 3, Davis enrolled him in obedience training before starting his therapy training regimen.

Therapy animals, which can include dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits and even miniature horses, differ from service animals: Davis says service animals are trained to provide one or more compensatory tasks for people with disabilities, whereas their therapeutic counterparts are certified to participate in animal-assisted activities or animal-assisted therapies. Piper is dual-certified, and he is presently engaged in both capacities.

Each Thursday, Davis and Piper attend the Pontiac branch of the Allen County Public Library to volunteer for the “Paws to Read” literacy program, where children practice their reading skills in one-on-one sessions with Piper, who serves as their quiet cheerleader.

And every other Saturday morning, the duo conducts social visits at Visiting Nurse & Hospice Home in Fort Wayne. Davis says she leaves with “a certain level of buzz” when Piper connects with someone, citing a particular example when he approached an older gentleman in the hospice setting recently.

“Piper went up and got his nose under the man’s hand that was resting on the arm of the chair. The man leaned forward and almost cried, saying, ‘I needed this so much.’ Piper made a beeline straight for the man,” Davis says. “It’s so touching to share this great dog with other people.”

Left to right:

“In my book, there’s nothing better than volunteering with your dog.”
—Ruth Davis, assistant professor of human services

“The dogs make me happy, and even though I have four of my own at home, it is nice to be able to come and pet the other dogs.”
—Janell Hendrickson, Ivy Tech Northeast bursar

“Finals can be overwhelming and stressful. Who doesn’t feel great after you hug a dog?”
—Jessica Clarke, nursing major

“The dogs are calming and help with stress because they are good friends and make me happy.”
—Kenneth Marshall, healthcare support/pre-nursing major