Therapy dogs give UNCA students a stress-free environment

Kevin McCall 


           Photo by Kevin McCall       Trainer Maddy Winer with her dog Jeter attend the therapy dog event at UNCA.

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Therapy dogs make a return as COVID-19 restrictions ease on the UNC Asheville campus giving students a chance to ease the stresses of everyday life. 
Patti Cole said she started working with therapy dogs after witnessing their effect on people at the hospital she worked at. 
“I started doing it mainly because I worked at the hospital and I just took an interest in it. I like working with the dogs. I like training them. I like seeing what they can do,” Cole said.
Cole said Sophie, her 5-year-old golden retriever, became a therapy dog as a puppy and enjoys interacting with students on campus. 
“They like working. They know when they’re going somewhere to work. I’ve taught her to say hello. When I say hello she will turn around and go to somebody,” Cole said.
Trainer Maddy Winer said her dog Jeter, a 10-year-old labradoodle, recently beat cancer and is ready to give back to students who are dealing with stress and anxiety. 
“He’s been a cancer survivor for six months now. He likes to give back, it’s been a long road,” she said. “Jeter has been both a therapy dog and a service dog. He likes helping people.”
Cole said therapy dogs go through behavioral training to provide a loving and stress-free experience for those who interact with them.
“They’ve got to have the basic obedience,” she said. “They have to have a good temperament and they have to love people.”
Health Promotion Assistant Maria Gelpi said the pandemic limited the amount of time each person could have with the therapy dogs. Now with different restrictions in outdoor settings, more people can interact with the dogs outside.
“This past year we were doing them through sign-up sheets to limit the amount of people that were interacting with each dog. There was one person per handler for two minutes that was held inside,” the 21-year-old said. 
Some handlers still refuse to take advantage of the updated outdoor restrictions. 
“Because of coronavirus, a lot of the handlers are older and don’t want to come to campus due to the delta variant,” the UNCA senior said.
Winer said COVID-19 is not over yet and there is still a road ahead before the therapy dogs can have the same pre-pandemic interaction.
“We’re still under that COVID-19 umbrella. We still can’t be warm and opening with people in some ways,” Winer said.
According to Gelpi, many remain concerned with shifting statewide protocols as they relate to pandemic safety.
“The transition from being in total isolation to just going back to normal when we know it’s not, I think that can be very anxiety inducing for a lot of students,” Gelpi said.
Winer said social isolation from the pandemic gives students stress and anxiety, and the dogs provide a therapeutic outlet for them.
“I think it has been so hard for everyone to be so isolated. It feels really good to be back doing things. Coming to the school is really fun. Everybody we meet has either a dog and a cat that they miss. He kind of fills the void for them. That’s important. He likes it,” Winer said.
Winer said Jeter visits students monthly and relieves the stress students feel from their classes, especially during exam periods. 
“Usually, he would come once a month and a lot of the times it would be during exam week. They say if you pet a dog, it lowers your blood pressure. It’s good for you,” Winer said. 
Gelpi said therapy dogs also assist introverted students who struggle with starting conversations with people and can help them overcome it.
“I feel like other students who identify as being a little more introverted can have an easier time meeting other students who might feel the same way if they have that dog in between. It makes it easier for them to bond and pick up a conversation,” Gelpi said.
Cole said witnessing the effects Sophia has on the people she interacts with provides a rewarding experience and gives comfort to both the patients and students she visits.
“It’s so rewarding when you take them in and you visit with the patient. They make people feel good. If someone is having a bad day, they lift them up,” Cole said.
Winer said Jeter helps patients who struggle with talking to nurses open up during hospital visits and assists them in feeling more comfortable speaking about their memories and personal lives. 
“I’ve seen people who hardly talk to nurses talk to Jeter and they’ll tell him about their childhoods, their parents or someone they love that they lost. Many times the nurse will watch from the doorway and say, ‘That patient hasn’t spoken in months.’ They can open up their hearts to him,” she said.
Winer said there should be more therapy dogs on campus available for students who need them. 
“I think every dorm should have a therapy dog that they take care of. If that would be possible, that would be a great thing,” she said. 
People seem more willing to open up to dogs because of the special connection they have with humans, Winer said.
“I think dogs know people’s hearts. I think there’s a big connection between dogs and people. Dogs pick their people well,” she said.