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Students’ best friends: Therapy dogs bring year-end relief

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: As the staff of McIntyre Library know, sometimes just a fun and unexpected distraction from academic stress is just what the doctor ordered to get students' minds settled and refocused. That's where furry friends like Madison can instantly turn around a hard day.

In addition to being experts in guiding students conducting research and offering academic support of many kinds, the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s McIntyre Library make it a point every semester to provide a range of opportunities intended to support the emotional well-being and mental health of students as well.

The 2020-21 academic year brought an increased need to address these inner lives of Blugolds facing a global pandemic while navigating college. 

It was time to call in some four-legged helpers.

Between April 27 and May 12, McIntyre Library hosted 10 visit days with six different therapy dogs, all brought to campus by their owners or handlers, and all with a specific temperament and training to provide affection and emotional comfort to students during the stress of finals.

“The McIntyre Library Therapy Dog Program began over six years ago, and was created by former McIntyre librarian Eric Jennings,” says Jenna Vande Zande, library research and communications associate. “It was established as a single finals-week stress-relieving event. The program has grown exponentially as local therapy dog owners caught wind of the campus volunteer experience.”

As of this spring semester finals-week event, McIntyre Library has hosted more than 30 different dogs at different points in the academic calendar, typically in the last few weeks of semesters. While it has traditionally taken place inside the library, this most recent event was outdoors in compliance with campus COVID-19 visitor policies.

“We have also hosted virtual ‘pup dates’ on social media streaming with some therapy dogs and handlers who were not able to attend the in-person dates,” Vande Zande says.

It’s about the dogs and so much more

Much like area community libraries, McIntyre Library serves a purpose that reaches far beyond that of providing academic resources and research materials. It serves as a physical and emotional hub for student life, a place to feel anchored amid often chaotic schedules and lives.

“We see each of our students as a whole person and want to acknowledge and support them as a whole person — academically, emotionally, mentally and physically,” Vande Zande says. “We strive to bring students together and reframe the idea of what a library is. Our driving force behind this type of programming is student connection. We are constantly adapting and adding programs and spaces along this theme, including our growing puzzle and board game collection, the Blugold Makerspace and our new digital studio coming this fall.”

Vande Zande says that the feedback time after time for these recurring events is proof of the program’s value to students and to dog owners and library staff who seek to improve the lives of students. Especially closing out a full academic year under pandemic restrictions, she says all participants found the experience a little extra-special this time — even the dogs.

“For many, it had been a year or more since their last therapy dog session, anywhere at all, so a few reported that their dogs had been pretty depressed and were greatly cheered up by getting to hang out with the students,” Vande Zande says. “You could feel the dogs' energy as they wagged their whole body in excitement when students walked up to them. The handlers seemed very happy for the chance to chat with our students again as well.”

White therapy dog

Dogs like this great pyrenees named Bumble have been visiting McIntyre Library every semester for years, offering comfort and a little slice of home in the form of a fuzzy muzzle to students stressed by the crunch of finals and graduation.

Library staff took note of the extremely grateful students who came upon the dogs, overhearing comments like “I needed this so much today” or “This dog is going to be my good luck charm for my next final.”

For senior education major Audrey Carlson, her time playing and cuddling with a therapy dog named Bumble was just the boost she needed to close out her spring semester.

“Being able to spend some time with Bumble was so healing for my stressful week of finals and all the other unknowns that come with the end of the semester,” the Roseville, Minnesota, native says.

“I happened to be working my front desk job at the library that day, and am so grateful I got to meet him.”

McIntyre Library staff and student employees already are at work coordinating more dog visits for the fall semester, noting that the most frequent feedback they receive from students is the refrain of “more dogs, more often.” With visits set for September, November and December, it’s clear that the library mission to meet the academic and emotional needs of students is a top priority.