A college student has to learn to cope with many
changes and challenges while transitioning into adult life, such as acclimating
to a new environment and leaving behind family, friends and even pets.
Stacey Gerken, director of the campus counseling
center, understands that some students who come in for help with these issues
might need something different than the conventional hour spent talking through
their stresses. This is where Sam, Gerkens’s large Munsterlander dog, steps
into the picture.
Sam is a certified therapy dog and has been coming into
the counseling center with Gerken for the last two and half years. Sam comes in
only occasionally, mostly when Gerken receives requests for him, and spends
time students who come to the center. Students can pet him, play with him and
just generally enjoy spending time with a dog.
“There is a lot of research out there about the
positive impact of a therapy dog,” Gerken said. “It kind of reminds people of
their own dogs. Often, people will start talking about their own dog or a dog
that they used to have. It just seems like a much more effective way of helping
students without it being a traditional way. This helps students relax and talk
about difficult things. It is very soothing.”
According to Mark Plonsky, who has a Ph.D. in psychology
and is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, says that even
just petting a dog can lower your blood pressure.
“Dogs have an incredible ability to read nonverbal
communication,” Plonsky said. “When a person is depressed, upset or anxious,
their nonverbal communication will show it. In addition, dogs have an
incredible ability to smell things. When a person is upset, their body
chemistry changes. For example, they perspire more. I believe the dog can smell
these kinds of chemical changes in the body.”
Gerken hopes to grow this into a program where students
will regularly have the opportunity to benefit from therapy dogs.
“I would like to eventually have an afternoon where we
have therapy dogs and in a more travelled area, like in the Dreyfus University
Center, where students can come and just interact with the dogs,” Gerken said.
“You don’t have to talk about anything—just so students could know when they
can come and get their dog fix.”
In order to be a certified therapy dog, which is
different than being a service dog, the dog has to pass a test, proving that he
or she can stay calm in various situations, like when around other dogs or
equipment like wheelchairs. Sam was certified through Therapy Dog
International. Gerken said that the training is not anything very special and
that it has lot to do with the personality of the dog. She said that Sam is a
very low key, affectionate dog and that she trained him herself.
“I’ve had students come up and ask where the dog is,”
Gerkind said. “I will have students request me because they know I have the
Gerken stated that she knows several faculty members
with therapy dogs that they might be willing to bring in for this program. She
also mentioned that she might like to collaborate with organizations like the
UWSP Animal Behavior Club.
In order to get the program running, Gerken is first
going to have to get permission from the school, consult with the DUC to make
she will have a space for this and coordinate with others to bring in therapy
dogs. Gerken envisions bringing in these dogs during high-stress times, like
finals, or maybe even on a monthly or weekly basis. She stated that it is in
the long range strategic plan for the counseling center.