Izzy the therapy dog: Needing her more than ever

You may have seen her while getting a flu shot, while walking around campus, or at a study break in McCabe. You may have opened an email from Director of Student Health and Wellness, Alice Holland, and felt your day brightened by her photograph. Perhaps you have even visited her office hours in Worth Health Center — either way, Izzy, therapy puppy in training, is a new friend and comforting presence to those on campus who are sad, stressed-out, or simply casting forlorn glances towards the dogs that are walked past them everyday.
Izzy is a five-month-old standard poodle, welcomed into the college community after multiple students suggested a therapy pet to the Health and Wellness Center. She is currently studying to be officially certified as such. While students work on papers, labs, midterms, and problem sets, Izzy is attending school each Thursday, where she must take three courses and a final, comprehensive exam. Last week, Izzy completed her first beginner puppy behavioral course; her next two courses will focus on specific skills for companionship and therapy training.
What will therapy training enable Izzy to do? Therapy animals are a valuable and unique resource in many settings, including the often-overwhelming environment of the college campus. They can ease stress by providing comfort and affection through their friendly, gentle temperaments; their presence not only encourages communication and socialization, but it can promote healthy activity.
Furthermore, research suggests that therapy animals can reduce depression and anxiety in certain individuals.
“This may be related to the comforting physical sensation of touching an animal, as well as the less threatening relational component of connecting with a non-human,” said Patricia Flaherty-Fischette, a doctoral level researcher currently investigating Animal-Assisted Therapy.
Those who struggle with the traditional human relationships that support therapeutic interventions may find a safer source of comfort in the therapy animal’s lack of judgment. Therapy animals are able to access emotions and thoughts outside of the individual’s self and the individual’s own vulnerabilities — they are a way to get outside of one’s self, as well as a positive distraction.
The Animal-Assisted Therapy community is still in the process of standardizing the practices associated with the term “animal-associated therapy,” here used to refer to the integration of a therapy-animal into a mental health professional’s therapeutic process. Even so, Flaherty-Fischette hypothesizes that the effects of Animal-Assisted Activities—activities with an animal without a mental health professional — would be an extension of the results she has found in her research.
“I think [Animal-Assisted Therapy] is different from other wellness initiatives as it presents an opportunity to have a relational experience, which may lead to feelings of connection, with a non-human, which can be less threatening,” said Flaherty-Fischette.
For some individuals, this kind of engagement with a therapy animal may, in turn, provide more willingness to explore connections with other people.
As a therapy puppy still in training, Izzy has already made a positive impact on campus. Students can take her for a walk, hold her paw while having labs collected, and visit her to hang out or just say hello. “A challenge is balancing her work and ‘just being a puppy’ time,” said Holland. Thus, Izzy’s work time is limited to one day each week with two hours of office time. Even so, Izzy has connected to many departments on campus, including the Library, Athletics, the Women’s Resource Center, the Office of Student Engagement, and Counseling and Psychological Services. The engineering department is even creating a special pedal operated puppy gate for the Health and Wellness Center.
“Students comment that Izzy is the best medicine,” said Holland, noting that many students take time out of their busy schedules to visit with Izzy.  Visiting Izzy is not only a break from academics, but it’s a comfort to students when they miss spending time with animals. “There are a lot of dogs being walked on campus, but there are none besides Izzy that I know I’m allowed to run up and pet,” said Samantha Herron ’18. “It’s nice to be able to see her, and say hi, and know that Izzy hanging out with me for a little bit is part of her ‘job’ on campus.”
“The impact of wellbeing to individual students is evidenced by their reactions, joyful faces, and exclamations,” said Holland. In a time when a multitude of stressors may be piling up in life — academics, extracurriculars, the future, and the election — self-care is important and valid, and Izzy is here to help. You can visit Izzy at her Health and Wellness Center office hours alternating each week on Wednesday, 2:00-3:30 P.M., or on Friday, 10:00-11:30 A.M.

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