UMaine goes to the dogs

“It’s hard not to smile when you’re around dogs,” said Katie Kiel, a junior art history major at the University of Maine. And smiles abounded at the university’s Fogler Library when the library hosted a week of visits by local therapy dogs.

According to Gretchen Gfeller, Fogler Library public relations manager, the idea came, not from the university, but from its students.

“We have a suggestion board it’s an open board that the students can write anything on it and early in the semester and [the suggestion] kept appearing to ‘please bring puppies for finals,’” Gfeller said.” It made me smile and it came up again and again.”

Gfeller set out to research programs for bringing dogs to the library, one of the largest buildings on campus.

What she found was that UMaine’s initiative is in good company. The University of New Hampshire, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale Law and other colleges bring in therapy dogs to help students de-stress in preparation for events such as finals. After speaking with representatives from UNH who praised the program, the next step was to find someone locally to help make therapy dog visits happen.

She reached out to Rebecca Henderson, owner of the doggie daycare and boarding facility Renaissance Dogs in Holden. Henderson has three therapy dogs herself and they participate in the Bangor Public Library’s Read to Dogs program where children gain confidence by reading books to an attentive therapy dog.

Henderson reached out to others who have therapy dogs and before long, Henderson and Gfeller had a team and a plan. Taking into consideration potential stumbling blocks, such as where to situate the dogs, what to do about allergies and how to keep students feeling safe, the university approved the presence of therapy dogs for six days beginning Wednesday, May 1, and ending Wednesday, May 8. No therapy dog visits were held on the weekend.

The dogs represented three therapy dog organizations — Therapy Dogs International, Therapy Dogs Inc. and Love on a Leash.

Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort, affection and confidence for people in many types of situations including hospitals, retirement or nursing homes, schools, libraries or wherever there are sources of stress. It’s not surprising, Gfeller said, that therapy dogs are being used on college campuses to provide comfort and stress relief to students. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are not on duty all day, every day.

“This is our first time on a college campus,” Henderson said. Yellow lab Atticus and papillons Keeper and Finch thrive among the attention, she noted. “Their job as therapy dogs is to visit with people and to bring joy to those around them.”

And that’s just what the dogs involved in the pilot program did.

Therapy dog owner Patty Counihan is an employee of UMaine’s Career Center. Her shetland sheepdog, Joey, had his therapy dog debut at the Fogler Library therapy dog days.

“He has the biggest smile on his face,” Counihan said as she glanced over at Joey who was among a gaggle of coeds. “A number of students have commented that this is just what they needed.”

Junior psychology major Krista Nelson echoed that sentiment. She made sure her days included a stop at the library to relax with the dogs.

“I love animals and this is so relaxing,” Nelson said. “It’s very therapeutic, especially to not have to think about the impending stress of a final.”

But it’s not just the students who have benefitted from the therapy dog days, Gfeller said. Faculty and staff have made a point of stopping at the library for a quick visit with the dogs.

Gfeller said the library would like to continue to offer visits from therapy dogs during key times of the year, including the beginning of the semester and during finals weeks. And that’s because, she said, it’s all about the students and helping them.

“Look at their faces,” Gfeller said. “It’s priceless.”