Sacred Heart University students surround Jojo who will be a part of the university's new Dog Therapy program next fall. Contributed photo
FAIRFIELD, CT - Beginning with Welcome Weekend on August 25, Sacred Heart University will have three new employees whose job will be to help students relax, have fun and lower their stress levels. The new staff members – Gracie, Jojo and Maya – walk on four legs and are covered in fur. They are part of the Dog Therapy program that SHU’s Campus Ministry team is introducing this fall.
Kelly Schneider, administrative assistant for Campus Ministry and coordinator of the Dog Therapy program, said she jumped at the chance to bring the program to campus. “The handlers were looking to expand their program to a college campus, and they offered to volunteer here free of charge. Dog therapy is a proven stress reliever, so I knew it would be a win-win,” she said. With the arrival of this program, Sacred Heart joins other colleges around the country who have successfully implemented pet therapy programs.
In addition to Welcome Weekend, the dogs will also be present for the Freshman Retreat in Litchfield on September 15. The program will officially kick off on Tuesday, September 25, in University Commons. Students will be able to visit with the dogs from 5-7 p.m., and the program will continue monthly. “We will also invite the dogs to campus at especially stressful times of the year, such as during finals,” Schneider said.
Therapy dogs have a proven track record of providing a positive therapeutic impact. This group of dogs, who are registered as Delta Society Pet Partners, already regularly visit Bridgeport Hospital and the Monroe Library for reading sessions with kids. They are excited to add college students to their resume, said Dennis Gallagher, handler and owner of Gracie. Gallagher, who has a high-stress job himself, said that volunteering for Dog Therapy programs helps to relieve his own stress as well as that of the people he and Gracie interact with. He estimates that he and Gracie spend five hours a week volunteering. “When I work with Gracie, I’m just along for the ride; she’s the star. These dogs change people’s lives. They walk in and completely change the mood in the room.”
His goal is to expand the group to 10 to 15 dogs and handlers, but he noted that the process is expensive. “Training a dog for therapy is not cheap, and the expense falls on the handler,” he said. Despite that, he wouldn’t change a thing. “Other than getting married, this is the best thing I’ve done in my life.”