Therapy dogs have been making appearances in the community and on Virginia Tech’s campus for almost two years. However, it was their appearance on Facebook that served as the impetus for Old Dominion University students to model the popular program on the Norfolk campus.

“Many of the students here are away from home for the first time and have left beloved pets behind,” said Heidi Garman of Hampton, Va., a senior biology major at Old Dominion University who coordinated the therapy dog program for the university’s Pre-Veterinary Medical Association. “They really miss the time they have with their pets, and we wanted to offer them a way to connect with a pet here on campus.”

Garman explained that the relatively new club was searching for a project that could both meet the group’s interests and support the campus community. When the students — many of whom are interested in applying to the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech — saw photos of therapy dogs in action on the college’s Facebook page, they knew that they had found a way to promote the human-animal bond too.

The pre-vet students did more research on the veterinary college’s therapy dog program and a similar one at Harvard Medical School. They also found studies showing that therapy dogs — and other pets — have a number of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure. After making a presentation to the university about therapy animals, the Old Dominion students organized an event last month that gave the campus a chance to de-stress before finals with certified therapy dogs.

Seven dogs of varying breeds and sizes, all of whom came from a local volunteer group, interacted with students for an hour on two separate days. According to Garman, almost 500 students lined up for the event.

“We were blown away by the number of students who came by to connect with the dogs,” said Garman, who added that they limited the event to two students per dog at a time so that the dogs would not be overwhelmed. “We probably could have had more people, but we wanted to make sure that our event was a positive experience for the dogs and their handlers as well as the students.”

Garman, who says she intends to apply to the veterinary college next fall, said that student organizers hope to continue the program in the future.

A model for success

The college’s therapy dog program, known as Virginia Tech Helping PAWS (Pet Assisted Wellness Service), started as an outreach program of the Companion Animal Club in 2012 and is now under the purview of the Center for Animal Human Relationships. Even though it is relatively young, the program has already become a fixture on Virginia Tech’s campus.

“It has been incredibly rewarding to witness how the presence of our therapy dogs can immediately bring smiles to the faces of everyone surrounding them,” said Katelyn Somers of Annapolis, Md., a third-year veterinary student and co-chair of Virginia Tech Helping PAWS.

This spring, therapy dogs will visit Newman Library to provide monthly study breaks for students, offer comfort at area nursing homes, and make regular stops at the Blacksburg library so that children can read to their four-legged friends. The Virginia Tech Helping PAWS organizers are also planning a welcome-back event for Virginia Tech students, and they made a trip to Richmond for the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association’s legislative day at the capitol on Jan. 23.

Virginia Tech Helping PAWS also began a partnership with Cook Counseling Center last summer. Therapy animals participate in some sessions with students seeking counseling.

“Our therapy dogs consistently bring joy and comfort to their human counterparts; it seems that when a therapy animal is present, the barriers that were once present among humans are immediately broken down. This phenomenon has led to many breakthroughs at Cook Counseling Center,” Somers said. “Not only do humans enjoy this process, but the therapy dogs enjoy it as well.”

Dr. Bess Pierce, associate professor of community practice in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences and director of the Center for Animal Human Relationships, explained that while therapy animal programs are becoming more and more common around the country, still only a few universities have them. The veterinary college is one of only a handful in the country with such a program.

In addition to providing support for Virginia Tech Helping PAWS, the Center for Animal Human Relationships also has two resident therapy dogs, golden retriever Yogi and labrador retriever Delaware. Not only do these dogs hold regular hours at the veterinary college, but students, faculty, and staff can sign them out and take them on walks.

Not just any dog can become a therapy animal. To participate in Virginia Tech’s program, veterinary student and faculty pets must pass the Animal Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test, a rigorous health screening, and an exam to test advanced skills such as leaving dropped food on the ground and reacting appropriately to medical equipment. The ideal therapy dog is well-mannered, follows commands, enjoys people, and tolerates stress.

Written by Michael Sutphin.