Story By Miranda Ingram
“The therapy dog squad is ready to see you tomorrow in the Honors Office! No appointment needed — just show up and hang with the pups.” This post popped up on my Facebook feed alongside a photo of two adorable dogs in mid-September. I was surprised. This was the first I had heard about any therapy dog program on campus. The news intrigued me and, even though I was a freshman and did not know exactly where the Honors Office was, I decided to give the dogs a visit and see what it was all about.
As soon as I walked through Meredith’s door, I was greeted with a wagging tail and a happy, puppy-dog smile. I was meeting Buttercup, Meredith’s dog whose deep brown eyes and lolling tongue immediately set a calm and playful mood in the office. She was surrounded by students playing with her, but I got in a few pets before her “office hours” were up.
Buttercup is one of two dogs in the Honors Program’s new “Therapy Dog Program” here at the University of Florida. The other, a cutie named Kenzie, is Dr. Johnson’s lovable pet. Both are certified therapy dogs through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, a national organization that provides “testing, certification, registration, support and insurance for members who volunteer with their dogs in animal-assisted activities,” as stated on their website. Through this certification, the dogs passed a temperament test as well as three supervised hospital visits where they interacted with different patients.
Meredith and Dr. Johnson got the idea for the therapy dog program after doing hospital volunteer work with their dogs. They piloted the program on campus last spring, where they began to bring in their dogs a few times each semester to see what the students’ reactions would be. The idea was an immediate hit and now the puppies’ office hours are posted on Honors on Wednesday.
There is science behind the therapy dog program. As found in a study conducted by UCLA Health, “Humans interacting with animals have found that petting the animal promoted the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin — all hormones that can play a part in elevating moods.” These hormones can also help lower anxiety and provide comfort to the students who see the dogs.
Physically, connecting with therapy animals can also “lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health.” Not only does playing with the dogs help your mood and stress level, but it’s also good for your heart.
All students are welcome to visit during the dogs’ office hours, whether they are enrolled in the Honors Program or not. During the dogs’ two-hour shifts, anywhere from fifteen to twenty students will visit Kenzie and Buttercup. These students range from freshmen to seniors. Students come in for a variety of reasons, like missing their dog from home or wanting to talk to an advisor in an informal setting. Some just want to get a quick puppy-hug in between classes. Whatever the reason, the dogs are there to help students de-stress.
“The entire purpose [of the program] is to de-stress and provide an environment for our students to relax and take a break and turn off their brains for a few minutes,” Meredith said. Whether your workload is overwhelming or you just wish you had your dog to play with, the Honors therapy dogs are more than happy to help.
Another benefit of the program is that it makes Honors advising more accessible and less nerve-wracking. Students often don’t realize how much the Honors advisors can help them with their questions and are often too nervous to schedule an appointment on their own. The Honors Therapy Dog Program is helping break down a barrier, inviting students to come into the office in a comfortable, stress-free environment.
Many students love to see the dogs and now make visiting them a part of their weekly routine.
Lil Rodriguez, an aerospace engineering freshman, said, “Visiting Kenzie was a nice break from my hectic day and really helped me calm down. It was also really nice to talk to Dr. Johnson as you pet Kenzie since she has a lot of advice and experience if you’re confused about anything.”
The therapy dog program is already making an impact, not only in the UF Honors community, but across campus. Meredith and Dr. Johnson have also taken their pets to the disability resource center and the libraries, to name a few places. In fact, any student organization can request to have the Honors therapy dogs attend their event if they email either Meredith or Dr. Johnson to schedule a time. The Honors Therapy Dog Program is a unique and exciting new addition to our UF campus.