Meet Kenny – UVA School of Nursing’s Therapy Dog

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Updated on 11 January 2021

Kenny is a Labradoodle working as a therapy dog at the University of Virginia.

This charming Labradoodle can be found at the University of Virginia’s School Of Nursing department, helping to brighten the day of students, staff and visitors at the hospital.

Before the current pandemic, Kenny would visit the School to provide a welcome morale boost through class visits, attending university events and providing an outlet for students at lunchtime.

Kenny has been forced to take his therapy sessions online since Coronavirus hit the United States and the rest of the world, with the five-year old having to get to grips with Zoom calls like the rest of us.

We spoke to Kenny’s handler and owner Edie to learn more about this endearing Labradoodle and his valuable work as a therapy dog at the University of Virginia.

Edie is a nursing professor and a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at UVA, so we also touched upon the benefits to therapy dogs in a university setting during our interview.

1) Can you provide a little backstory about you and Kenny?

Kenny’s breeder picked him out of the litter as being the best one for therapy work. He is an Australian Mini Labradoodle (about 32 lbs.).

2) What inspired you and Kenny to become a therapy dog handler/therapy dog?

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

I was thinking about how tough going off to college could be, particularly for first-time students. They would be leaving their homes, parents, siblings, and possibly their own pets. Once I knew that I wanted to get a dog to be a therapy dog, I dug into learning about what type of dog would be the best for the job as well as being our family pet. I came up with the following criteria: kind disposition; cute; feel good to the touch; like people; hypoallergenic. I also wanted a dog that I could raise as a puppy, so I would know everything about his history, to avoid surprises while we were on the job. Any dog with the right disposition and training can be a good therapy dog- these were just my preferences. Following this, I read everything I could about how to raise a dog to be a good therapy dog.

3) What were the steps required to make this a reality?

We took all the classes to help him socialize and help us learn what we needed for therapy work. I got an ok from our Dean. At the UVA School of Nursing, we have a Compassionate Care Initiative and Kenny works as part of that. We also volunteer at the hospital. We visit one of the clinics and visitors waiting in the lobby.

4) What makes Labradoodles ideal candidates to be therapy dogs?

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

Whether a full-sized Labradoodle or a Mini, they have great dispositions and look friendly, so people who like dogs are drawn to them. They are hypoallergenic, don’t shed and feel good to the touch. They accept training very well and want to please. One of Kenny’s favorite commands is “Go say hi.”

5) What is involved in the average therapy dog session with Kenny (before COVID)?

He does different kinds of visits at the school. I just have him available when I’m free. Students, faculty and staff can all greet him. We visit offices. A few times faculty have asked if he could visit a class, especially if it was a difficult topic being discussed or just as a pick-me up for the students. I co-teach an oncology and end of life class and sometimes I would bring him to class to comfort students. I also bring him around for exams. This past year (before COVID) he had dedicated time (Dogtor’s Hours), where students knew they could interact with him around lunchtime. Each year students have a pinning ceremony and the Dean presents them with the pin for their respective class. Kenny also gets pinned each year as a participant. He also participates in any school activity that would be appropriate, for example The Day of Remembrance, where faculty and staff remember those they lost. In the hospital, he visits the clinic and says hello to anyone who wants “a dog visit” and we stop in the hallways and lobby to see if anyone wants to spend time with him. He takes part in the lighting of the hospital Christmas tree and visits specific units when they ask for him. The hospital has a Compassionate Care Cart that a nurse takes throughout the hospital with treats. Kenny or another therapy dog team from the hospital will accompany that cart.

6) How did the students react to their therapy dog sessions with Kenny (before COVID)?

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

Before COVID, the students were able to really interact with him. Some wanted to hold him, and others wanted to play with him on the floor. You could tell that the students were enjoying being able to have a little time that wasn’t about schoolwork. They looked more relaxed and happier. When we approached a group, you could hear students just calling out for him. If they were moving from class to class, they would acknowledge him, as they passed, “Hi Kenny” as if he were a classmate.

7) How has Kenny adapted to therapy dog sessions on Zoom?

I hate to say this, but he really doesn’t get that the Zoom squares have real people trying to communicate with him. He might look up if someone calls him name, but then loses interest. I have to bribe him with treats to stay around. Sometimes I will have him give me a “fist bump”, etc. but he doesn’t connect directly with the Zoom participants.

8) What are some of the challenges of using Zoom instead of in person?

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

People were very responsive about his Zoom sessions at first, but then everyone got so busy because of furloughs and just the extra amount of work, so we did less Zoom sessions. He is having a hard time with his furlough. He really misses all the interactions he had with the students.

9) What has been the reaction of the students to this new medium for therapy sessions with Kenny? What is involved in the average session now?

The hospital hasn’t used therapy dogs since the beginning of COVID. I am not taking him into the school either right now. A lot of the student work in online now. I am always available to interact with a student on Zoom, but it really isn’t the same.

10) What are the benefits of having therapy dog sessions?

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

There is research that shows that therapy dog sessions can help reduce stress. I can see the benefits in how the students light up or settle in with him, or how the energy in the room changes. Having him at the school, just says, “We care about you.” The most significant interaction that I saw was when I was in my office, and he was just lying behind my desk. A student came to the door and asked if Kenny was in. As I was saying, “Yes”, Kenny was walking out to see her. She came in and sat on the floor and just held and patted him. That kind of thing would happen a lot, so I just went back to what I was working on while she visited. When I looked up again, I saw that she was crying. I asked if I could help her and she said “No” and went back to hugging him. A couple of minutes later, she patted him, stood up, said “Thank you” to me, and walked out. She just needed to hold the dog so he could comfort her.

11) Are there any unexpected benefits? Perhaps to Kenny and yourself?

Kenny was made to be a therapy dog. He loves it. When you work with a therapy dog, you can become the human at the end of the leash. People would apologize for saying hi to him and not to me, or because they had said “hi” to him first. I discovered that being the human at the end of the leash was very rewarding. I could see how much they connected with him and how he made them smile. Even walking down the hospital halls, people will pass us and say, “Hi Kenny.” One time, someone passed us and said, “I like your new haircut, Kenny.” When these things happen, I really feel like “mission accomplished.”

12) What would you say to students who may be stressed or feeling under pressure but haven’t tried a dog therapy session before?

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

Kenny the therapy dog (Photo: UVA)

A therapy dog can certainly help with stress, and they are non-judgmental, warm and accepting. A therapy dog will help you be in the present moment, just you and the dog. No matter how hectic things are, when you are with the dog, everything else drops away.

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

Kenny has really brought a new, happy energy to the School and he also provides comfort during stressful times. He is always ready and willing to step up to just say “Hi” or let a stressed student hold him to be able to regroup and go back to being a student.

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