Dogs Helping out at Delzell
Sarah McQueen

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 dog.”

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.