Elly Tarnowieckyi, a senior mechanical engineering student, hasn’t lived with a dog since her family’s beagle died when she was young.
“Now,” she says, “I take every chance I can to pet other people’s dogs.”
And with Miami’s pet therapy program, she has a guaranteed chance to do so every week.
The constant demand of a college course load may make students feel like their tail is between their legs. To combat this, Miami offers pet therapy every Monday from 2 to 3 p.m. to help students decrease stress and improve their mood. During this time, students may drop in without charge or prior notice and receive their fill of furry affections.
The pet therapy program, which has been in place since 2008, serviced over 4000 Miami students during the 2015-2016 school year, according to Dr. Jennifer Young of Student Counseling Services.
It has been proven that the act of petting a therapy animal helps to reduce blood pressure and heart rate, which in turn reduces stress, according to Young. In addition to these physical benefits, petting a therapy animal can also promote a sense of comfort and well-being.
Two dogs attend every week. One of them is Sugar, an English setter and a rescue who was the original therapy dog at Miami when the program began in 2008.
The other dog is Enya, an Irish red and white setter. According to the dogs’ caretaker, Mary O’Leary, red and white setters are of a very rare breed that was thought to be extinct until the 1930s when some were found in a kennel in rural Ireland.
Both dogs have been registered as therapy animals and get yearly shots and vet visits.
O’Leary, a retired faculty member of Miami athletics, travels to different schools and programs in the area with her dogs up to four days a week. And her time is purely volunteered.
O’Leary said that what motivates her to put so much time and energy into an enterprise with no monetary benefit is not only the health benefits for reducing stress, but also the social impact that therapy animals can have on a group.
She told the story of a pet therapy session she held in a Miami dorm. The dorm had obvious cliques, and one very quiet girl with no friends around her was left watching from the outside. O’Leary brought Sugar over to the girl, and before long, other students moved over to join her. Once they got to talking, one of the girls found out that they lived 20 minutes away from each other at home.
Instances such as these that bring people together are what makes the work rewarding for O’Leary.
Young also spoke about the sense of kinship that is created among those who attend pet therapy sessions.
“[Pet therapy] brings together groups of students that don’t normally come together, such as athletes and international students and computer science students,” Young said. “It helps to build a stronger sense of community within Miami.”