American College Health Association: Proposal to Pilot to Protocol: Establishing a College Health & Wellness Center Therapy Puppy Program
College students confront unique stressors, such as living away from home, academic pressures, and social acceptance. Finding new and creative ways to address college students’ concerns has become paramount in helping campuses meet the increasing demand for health and wellness services. More and more, therapy animals are playing an increasingly important role in college health, as are the benefits they offer. Creating procedures for introducing therapy animals into a college health setting ensures the protection and the safety of students, animals, and the institution.
At the end of the 2015–2016 academic year, Swarthmore’s Health and Wellness Center staff compiled the post-visit feedback left by students in a suggestion box located in the center’s waiting lobby. The feedback highlighted a theme: students requesting a therapy dog on campus. The students’ requests emphasized an interest and potential need for a therapy dog on campus, and at a weekly meeting that summer, staff decided to write and share a proposal with the Dean of Students and the President’s staff. The proposal underscored that piloting this initiative aligned with the College’s mission of wellness and suggested a one-year pilot where students would interact with a therapy puppy in training.
The therapy puppy in training pilot program began during the fall semester of 2016 and lasted through the spring semester of 2017. Izzy, then a 4-month old standard poodle puppy, visited campus twice weekly with her owner and handler, a staff nurse at the Health and Wellness Center. Publicity was coordinated through the College’s communications department to introduce Izzy to the campus community. Focus groups were organized for students to meet Izzy, interact with her, and offer feedback. Written and verbal suggestions were gathered. Students watched Izzy progress through her training and were able to appreciate the parallels of their own academic experiences. Shared examples include Izzy preparing for her own exams and coordinating her unexpected medical leave of absence for an umbilical hernia repair.
Interaction with Izzy on campus has shown significant benefits. With students “dropping by” to say hello to Izzy, there has been an increase in organic interaction with the staff. Izzy has also been a social lubricant in that she has promoted positive social behavior. Students shared that they are more extroverted while walking Izzy and that Izzy has boosted their self-esteem and sociability on campus. Izzy provides a common topic for discussion on campus and leads to more interaction with other students.