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Therapy dogs provide support on Virginia Tech campus

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virginia tech therapy dogsVirginia Tech therapy dogs Josie, Derek, and Wagner fetch stress from students with their companionship and unconditional love.

Kelsey Hammer, University Libraries digital literacy and multimedia production librarian who works on projects related to digital life, media creation, and collaboration, said one of her big projects has been combining efforts with the Virginia Tech therapy dogs to support students in finding joy, space, and support on campus – especially in Newman Library.

Studies show that petting a dog or other animal can increase the hormone oxytocin, resulting in feelings of calmness and contentment. Additionally, these interactions can decrease cortisol levels, leading to lower anxiety and stress.

“Many of our dog events this year have centered on principles that so many of our collaborators share including wellness, celebration, and gratitude,” said Hammer.

Over the past year, University Libraries has teamed up with the therapy dogs for events including Pops and Pups featuring popsicles for students studying for finals; three dog birthday parties with cake, snacks, photo opportunities, and 3D-printed dog-themed giveaways made in the Prototyping Studio; and Newman Library’s classroom dedication to the therapy dogs complete with a paw print plaque. One of the dogs, Josie, held office hours in Newman Library.

In May 2022, the VT Therapy Dogs Skills Showcase celebrated National Therapy Animal Day and highlighted the many of the dogs’ talents. Students watched them demonstrate their helping skills, such as giving a hug or attending to a person who is upset, grabbed therapy dog buttons and autographs, and gave the friendly pooches some pats.

“We also set up a huge smorgasbord of snacks and encouraged students to take handfuls!” said Hammer. “This was during finals and we know that can be a time where you might forget to eat or need an extra pick me up. Students had a ball.”

Also during the event, students shared their personal growth over the last year on the Wall of Progress, an art project created in collaboration with Hokie Wellness.

The wall channeled the idea of progress over perfection and celebrated students’ learning and growing journey. Newman Library hosted the Wall of Progress throughout the spring finals season.

“We came together around a student idea to show off how fantastic our dogs are, celebrate them, and connect through growth rather than perfection,” said Rami Steinruck, resident in psychology at the Cook Counseling Center, coordinator of groups, and an active member of the Animal Assisted Therapy Team.

“Although we tend to be very hard on ourselves, we quickly accept, celebrate, and love our dogs even though they are imperfect,” said Steinruck. “Maybe it’s because they are imperfect that we love them all the more.”

The events are fun and exciting for the dogs too. “These dogs love to work and they seemed to know this was set up as a time for them to shine,” said Steinruck. “They really brought their A game, and the event seemed to beam with joy and celebration.”

“These dog events offer something unique at a time students may need it most,” said Steinruck. “Students work hard all semester and they are stressed. Offering them a time to connect and reduce stress is very beneficial. The energy at these events is awesome! Most of all, I hope the students feel loved, included, valued, and cared for.”

Upcoming events

There will be more opportunity for students and the beloved canines to be festive. Derek will celebrate his birthday in Newman Library in October, and Josie will have her turn in November.

“I’m passionate about helping to showcase the play, joy, and care that can happen in a library because I know it means a lot to students, and it can really make a difference,” said Hammer.

Through Sept. 29, Special Collections and University Archives will host a new exhibit in memory of therapy dog Moose. Before his passing in 2020, Moose starred in several library videos including “How to Find and Check Out a Book.” The exhibit will celebrate Moose’s legacy. Trent Davis, Moose’s handler and coordinator of Animal Assisted Therapy, will be donating some of Moose’s memorabilia to Special Collections and University Archives where it will be displayed in its exhibit windows.

A successful initiative

Working with the therapy dogs has been a huge passion project for Hammer because of her strong love for dogs, but also as someone who has benefited personally from therapy. “I know first-hand how impactful it can be to meet new folks on campus and to reach out for support when needed – and even how important a quick dog interaction can be for turning a day around.”

The collaboration between University Libraries, the therapy dogs, and Hokie Wellness has been a hugely successful initiative.

“I love collaborating with the library,” said Steinruck. “And Hokie Wellness. It’s great to put our minds together and come up with great events and content for our students. Often, the library helps bring my vision to life. And then some. The quality of what we offer simply wouldn’t be possible without the expertise and resources of the library staff.”

“I really enjoy working with the VT therapy dogs team,” said Hammer. “Their incredible expertise is only matched by the huge hearts they have for this community. There’s a real shared commitment between VT therapy dogs and our digital literacy initiative when it comes to wellness for students, the dogs, and each other at events and beyond.”

Hammer says her biggest takeaway from these events has been community.

“The dogs have such a great way of centering folks and helping create connections, and it just branches out from there. You can see people meeting new friends, getting connected, and sharing joy with others.”

I know from my own college experience that being in school can often feel isolating in a myriad of ways and I think these events are a great way for people to connect with each other,” said Hammer. “The library is always interested in exploring how we can support connections and community.”

Many students are away from home for the first time and have left their four-legged friends behind on their college journey.

“We strive to be out and about on campus as much as we can. The therapy dogs are like your dogs away from home,” said Steinruck.

“Like the dedication plaque in classroom 207A says, ‘Never alone. Never without support,’ we want students to know that there are folks on campus who want to help in big ways and small,” said Hammer. “Hopefully these events are a way students can meet each other, find many different types of support, and also just have fun.”

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