Law School Faculty Blog

Therapy Dogs Provide Stress (and Comic) Relief

Nov11_Therapy By

After reading about Monty, a dog owned by a Yale law librarian who was "circulated" among students to help them deal with the stress of their legal studies, the University of San Francisco Law School wanted to establish a similar program to help our students during their exam period. There were just a few issues to work out first, such as where to find such a dog and how to ensure the dog’s comfort and safety while on duty at the library.

We contacted the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals whose Animal Assisted Therapy Program (AAT) is "designed to facilitate communication, healing, and motivation" between companion animals and people facing various challenges in their lives. However, because the AAT program usually sends its volunteer teams--consisting of a dog and its human companion--to medical or convalescent facilities, we did not know if AAT would be willing to work with us. Fortunately, they were open to the idea.

Setting Up the Program

After getting the appropriate approvals from university administrators, an AAT representative came to inspect our library to make sure that we met its safety standards for host facilities. After we passed AAT’s inspection, the program provided us with written doggie "credentials" verifying that each of the five dogs coming to our library had obtained the training, temperament testing, and health certifications required for all dogs in the program.

Next we set out to find an appropriate space to hold our therapy sessions. We wanted to make sure that anyone who did not wish to be around the dogs--those who were fearful or allergic, for example--would not have to be. We decided on our student TV lounge, which we made as comfortable for the dogs as possible. It was set up with a doggie bed and water bowl, and each of the dogs’ owners brought his or her dog’s favorite treats or toys.

After we advertised the therapy dog program to students in our weekly law school community email, blog, and Twitter feeds, the sign-up sheets filled up so quickly that we decided to add a few extra sessions. We also invited our faculty and staff to participate. Before we knew it, we had scheduled the dogs to visit twice a day for four days during a two-week period. Each session was to last for 10 minutes, and participants could schedule a session for themselves alone or with a friend or two.

The Dogs Arrive

Our first canine therapist was a pit bull/Weimaraner mix named Sophia Loren who had the trademark wiggly hind end and people-friendly nature of a pit bull and the blue-grey coloring of a Weimaraner. Although she was happy to do tricks, she was very calm and content to lie on her side while her visitors gave her belly rubs and chatted with her human companion about the benefits of the AAT program. Sophia, along with a Labrador retriever named Daphne and a golden retriever named Blaise, were the perfect therapy dogs for those looking for a calm, quiet encounter.

For anyone wanting a livelier adventure, MotC, a Labrador retriever/poodle mix, fit the bill. MotC was a soft and fluffy puppy, full of bounce and eager to perform tricks in exchange for treats. Her silly antics provided just the comic relief many students were looking for. Our last canine therapist was a 150-pound Saint Bernard named Monk, whose size and massive amounts of shedding were only to be outdone by his copious drooling and big droopy eyes. Sessions with Monk were not for the excessively fastidious, however; I left my session with him covered in hair and slobber (and a big smile). Monk was a crowd favorite. Word of our program spread to the local community, and several of the therapy sessions were documented by members of the local print, television, and radio media. The program was so popular, in fact, that in a few instances there were more

After we advertised the therapy dog program to students in our weekly law school community email, blog, and Twitter feeds, the sign-up sheets filled up so quickly that we decided to add a few extra sessions. reporters in the room than students, faculty, or staff. We hope that all of the media attention had the effect of humanizing legal studies for the students and in the eyes of the local community.

Lessons Learned

We also hope to make our dog therapy program a regular part of the exam period in future semesters with just a few changes to avoid some mistakes we made the first time around.
For other libraries hoping to follow in our footsteps, I offer just a few tips to ensure that things go smoothly for you and the dogs. First, be sure to remind participants of their appointments a day or two in advance to prevent no-shows. Also, allow enough time for the volunteer teams to arrive and get set up before the first appointment of the day so that the students, whose schedules are already tightly packed with exams and study sessions, can count on their sessions beginning on time.

Don’t forget that the students’ experience is paramount--check with students before inviting reporters to attend a session or schedule special sessions just for media. Finally, don’t forget that some people don’t wish to be around dogs. Plan ahead and pick an appropriate location, and be sure to have the room thoroughly cleaned after the therapy sessions so that those with allergies can use the space without fear of a reaction.
Overall, we feel confident that we achieved our goal of providing a little levity and stress relief at a very stressful time. Christy Siojo, a third-year student who was lucky enough to score two sessions with the therapy dogs, seems to agree. She says how papers by just spending a little time with the dogs ... it’s little things like that that can reinvigorate you and help you to study better."

Suzanne Mawhinney (skmaw is a research librarian at Zief Law Library at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

Editor’s note: read more about Monty and see his photo at www.npr. org/2011/03/31/135011159/monty­the-dog-hits-the-stacks-at-yale-law. Read more about the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Animal Assisted Therapy Program at­services/animal-assisted-therapy.

By Suzanne Mawhinney

Originally published in the AALL Spectrum.

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