Fido Goes to College

Mental health officials call in the dogs to help faculty members and students bond.
August 16, 2006

They’ve always said that dogs are man’s best friend. But did they ever say that dogs are a great way to help students and professors become pals?

A growing number of institutions are hosting back-to-school events that encourage professors and staff members to bring in their beloved pets to help new students become more comfortable on campus. At the same time, health officials say it’s a good way to help freshman learn about health services available to them.

In essence, the people can chew the fat, while the doggies chew the bones.

Kathy Bradley, the director of the Health and Counseling Center at Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania, is believed to be the first to think of the concept. But she gives all the credit to Nicky and Chloe, her two young dogs that she proudly refers to as “all-American mutts.”

A couple of years ago, when she worked for Susquehanna University, she recalls reading a newspaper article about psychologists using pets to help students de-stress during therapy sessions. She had just gotten her two new pups and was feeling some mental rewards of her own, she says. She also noted that the institution had been having some retention problems that she wanted to find new ways to address.

“I thought, why not have a few days where the ‘threatening’ professors and staff could bring in their dogs to help new students realize that we’re real people, too,” remembers Bradley. “My training as a psychologist led me to believe, though, that everyone would see this as too ‘touchy feely.’”

However, it turns out that “touchy feely” can sometimes be just the right prescription. Bradley says that many students who had expressed homesickness came to several sessions, which were planned during the first few weeks of school. Several professors and staff members brought in their pooches, and students were able to have conversations about classes and health concerns. And the president of the institution, L. Jay Lemons, even got involved -- helping scoop up some left-over accidents.

The doggy meet-and-greets were held on Mondays and Thursdays, which Bradley says tend to be the most stressful days of the week for freshmen.

Susquehanna has continued hosting its own events, and now that Bradley is at Gettysburg, she’s convinced administrators there that “Dog Days” events can be beneficial to students.

And still more institutions are following suit. After presenting a session at a recent meeting of the Association of University Counseling Center Directors, Bradley says that she fielded at least 10 inquiries from other institutions.

New Hampshire Technical Institute, for instance, will host its second annual dog-focused event starting in September.

“We’ve found that it’s a social time for students to make connections with faculty and staff,” says Gyme Hardy, director of student development and counseling services. “Pets just seem to have a calming influence on people.” The only costs, she says, were for a few tennis balls, bowls of water, and doggy bags and cookies.

Last year, 17 dogs showed up at the event, including a Greyhound, a Labradoodle, a Corgie, and several pugs. Hardy hopes that an even greater variety of pups -- and students -- will take part this year. 


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