Mary Trachsel On University Of Iowa’s Therapy Dog Sessions

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Updated on 21 January 2021

The University of Iowa is one of the universities in the USA who have embraced therapy dog sessions on campus.

Therapy dog programs can provide an outlet for students who may be struggling with the pressure of exams or being away from home for the first time.

During our feature of therapy dog sessions at universities in the USA, a regular theme has been how students miss their family pets left at home.

We spoke to associate professor Mary Trachsel to learn more about the therapy dog sessions at the University of Iowa and the benefits they bring to students.

1) How did the idea of therapy dog sessions first come about at University of Iowa?​

Students chat and work while cuddling dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Students chat and work while cuddling dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Some students asked me to sponsor the revival of the student animal group PAWS at the University. I agreed, and in our discussions of how the group should proceed, I mentioned therapy dog sessions during finals, having read about them at other universities. The students liked the idea, and decided to pursue it.

2) What steps did you have to take to see the idea come to fruition?

​We had to get permission for dogs to be on campus and in university buildings. This entailed finding out who were the relevant authorities, composing a written explanation and justification of the plan, and arranging meetings with those authorities. Once we secured permission, we contacted two therapy dog groups in the area to find out if they would be interested in coming, how many dogs and people might be involved, and what their availability was. We then worked through student affairs and University facilities to find visitation sites (we settled on the Student Union and Field House the first year–subsequently, we’ve been able to have the sessions outdoors in the spring) to schedule two sessions during finals week. We obtained parking passes for the people bringing dogs, used our student organization account to advertise the event and made posters for the dorms, cafeterias and classroom buildings. We arranged volunteers to escort dogs and handlers to the sites, make sure water bowls were available, check-in student attendees, and hand out and collect questionnaires (which we used to document the success of the event in our next application to hold the event again).

3) What is involved in the average therapy dog session at (before COVID)?

​Handlers and their dogs arrive and park in the appointed places and are escorted by student volunteers to the place where students will interact with them. Students arrive and enter the area where the dogs and their handlers are stationed. If there are lots of students (as there often are), student volunteers let them into the area as other students leave. The important thing is not to pack the area too much. Students are free to talk with handlers, pet and play with the dogs, and fill out a questionnaire when they depart.

4) How did the students react to their therapy dog sessions (before COVID)?

​The therapy dog sessions are very popular. They draw a big crowd, and students are enthusiastic. They often say they miss their own dogs and wish they could have them on campus. They report that the therapy dog sessions are great stress-relievers during finals week.

5) What are the benefits of dog therapy sessions to students? Did you see any unexpected benefits?

I think the sessions give students a break from the anxiety of studying from finals. The dogs make them happy, and they forget the stress of school for a little while. An unexpected benefit is that the event draws student interest in getting involved in PAWS activities, which include field trips and volunteer activities at the local animal shelter.

6) What is involved in the average Zoom session now?

We have not attempted to hold this event on zoom. I think physical contact is one of the main benefits of the therapy dog sessions. PAWS continues to hold meetings via zoom, but we have suspended this event until pandemic restrictions are eased.

7) Finally, do you believe this is something all universities and educational institutions should consider?

Student sips a coffee with his dog in a pet carrier (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Student sips a coffee with his dog in a pet carrier (Photo: Adobe Stock)

​I am a believer in the therapeutic power of animal contact, and the dogs we’ve hosted on campus are great ambassadors. They are friendly and affectionate, and students obviously love being able to interact with them. Other groups have also started hosting therapy dog events on campus, and we never run out of students to attend, no matter how many visits are scheduled. Some students at our events return to the line for second visits. So yes, I do think other educational institutions should consider holding these kinds of events. They can serve as a reality check for students who succumb to anxiety and self-doubt during stressful times in the semester. They make the institution seem less institutional.

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