Spreading Smiles, Easing Stress and Promoting Wellness

With a new, dedicated space in the Barnes Center at The Arch, the University’s pet therapy program brings students and dogs together for relaxing interactions.

Students gather around to pet a therapy dog
Students enjoy hanging out with Keely and handler Jean Rand of PAWS of CNY in the Walters Pet Therapy Room in the Barnes Center at The Arch.

Clayton is a 3-year-old goldendoodle with a lot of friends on the Syracuse University campus. When he arrives at the Barnes Center at The Arch on Thursdays, he can count on soaking up plenty of attention, seeing old friends, making new ones and creating smiles all around him. They even celebrated his birthday in September. “We have hard-core Clayton fans,” says Nick Vescio, Clayton’s owner and handler with Pet Partners of Central New York, a nonprofit organization that promotes the benefits of the human-animal bond. “He wouldn’t miss a day either. When you tell him he’s going to school, you’ve made his week.”

Students petting a goldendoodle named Clayton
Clayton, a goldendoodle with Pet Partners of Central New York, looks forward to his visits with students.

One of Clayton’s fans is Sydni Tougas ’22. She misses her two dogs at home and makes it a point to visit with Clayton every week before her psychology class. “He’s starting to recognize me, so when I come in he’ll get excited and it’s so cute,” Tougas says. “It’s been nice to have a dog on campus that knows who I am. It gives me something to look forward to.”

Tougas introduced her friend Izzy Hong ’22 to the program. Departing after her first visit, Hong says she loved it and plans to continue coming back. “My dog at home is a source of comfort for me and relieves a ton of stress,” she says. “It’s really nice to see and pet a dog here.”

Tougas and Hong aren’t alone. Since 2012, when Health Promotion—now part of the Barnes Center at The Arch—introduced an event called Paws for Stress as part of its Wellness Week programming, pet therapy has been wildly successful on campus. A monthly Therapy Dog Thursday program, held in Bird Library, followed. Pooches were also welcomed for occasional therapy sessions at the College of Law and special events such as Orange After Dark. When planning got underway for the Barnes Center at The Arch, the idea of a dedicated space for pet therapy took hold. “We recognized there was certainly a lot of popularity with the program,” says Katelyn Cowen, director of health promotion at the Barnes Center at The Arch. “Students really love it and it seemed like no matter how frequently we did it, it was never enough.”

Today opportunities abound for students to spend time with canine companions. The Barnes Center at The Arch established partnerships with Pet Partners of Central New York, PAWS of CNY and Go Team Therapy Dogs and scheduled regular shifts throughout the week for the organizations’ volunteer handlers to bring their sociable canines in for visits. Known as the Deborah A. Barnes Pet Therapy Program (named in honor of the wife of Board of Trustees Chairman Emeritus Steve Barnes ’82), the initiative is part of the University’s holistic approach to student health and wellness. It offers a stepped-care model that empowers students to self-direct their care among multiple campus resources. Whether they long for the family pet at home, need a stress reliever, or integrate pet therapy into their overall care, students can benefit greatly from the program. “We know from a lot of studies that have been done that pet therapy can help lower heart rate, help with stress management and stress reduction overall, and blood pressure,” Cowen says. “There are all of these really positive physiological and mental health outcomes.”

Cowen also recognizes the dogs’ inherent good nature and how their presence has such a positive impact. “At the heart of what makes pet therapy so successful is the unconditional support and love these therapy dogs provide,” she says. “You can come as you are and be as you are, and you always belong. The therapy dogs make the best listeners, without interruption or judgment. The more ways we can provide students with spaces and opportunities for connection like this, the better.”

A Welcoming Room

For students, all of the action takes place in the Kathy ’73 and Stan Walters ’72 Pet Therapy Room, a gift from the Board of Trustees chair and her husband. The specially designed room features a paw-friendly, padded floor and comfortable seating, giving students the opportunity to pet, scratch and enjoy the dogs’ company and talk with the volunteer handlers. “During my most recent visit to campus, I had the opportunity to witness the Pet Therapy Room in action,” Kathy Walters says. “It was reaffirming to see our students engage with this and other new services, making the most of the many resources available to them. The Barnes Center at The Arch exemplifies the University’s commitment to developing the whole student—mind, body and spirit, inside and outside the classroom.”

Brandon Langford, a graduate assistant with the Barnes Center at The Arch, estimates that 40 to 50 people drop by daily. He is responsible for staffing the room with Barnes Center peer educators who work in shifts, setting up the room, monitoring the number of visitors and cleaning up. “We have students who schedule their calendars for specific dogs. They have been coming so much they know the owner, they know the dog, and they have built a relationship with them and make sure they come in every single time on the dog’s shift,” says Langford, a master’s student in the School of Education. “It’s very popular and even more people find out about the program every day, so there are always new faces.”

Barnes Center peer educator Patrick Lee ’21 likens the program to a social event, finding it relaxing to watch the interactions and listen to the conversations. “I love to see the students leave smiling,” he says. “I’ve had students come in and you can tell they’ve had a bad morning, and then they start petting the dogs and are able to smile.”

Alisamarie Yiatras ’21 echoes her fellow peer educator’s thoughts, citing the uplift in attitudes as well as all the dog-related talk and interactions between students and dog owners. “It’s rewarding knowing people are enjoying it and getting satisfaction out of coming here,” she says.

Cecelia Root ’21, a regular visitor to the room, loves animals and is fond of hanging out with Clayton on Thursdays. Being around the dogs and petting them helps her ease stress. “It’s really relaxing and I’m ready to do my classes,” she says. Root doesn’t hesitate to share her affection either. On a recent Thursday, she also engaged Jake, a 9½-year-old standard poodle who’s an old pro at befriending students. He spent two years participating in Therapy Dog Thursday at Bird Library and his owner, Marsha Zimmerman, a volunteer with Pet Partners, praises the new Walters Pet Therapy Room. “How much better can you get?” she says. “Jake is made for this job because he just loves people. He’s quite social and so sweet. He wants to provide smiles and good feelings. I love bringing him here. The students are friendly and appreciative—this couldn’t be a better place to bring my dog. They provide as many smiles for us as we do for them.”

Community Partnerships

Carol Hornstein, administrative specialist with the Barnes Center, coordinates the scheduling with volunteers from the pet therapy organizations, noting that each one has its own training program and guidelines for how the animals and handlers interact with the public. The dogs, for instance, are only allowed to stay for 90 minutes. On a bustling day, Hornstein and the peer educators monitor the visitors’ stays to ensure everyone gets a turn. “We try not to turn anybody away,” she says.

At the end of a shift, peer educators vacuum the floor, clean and sanitize the chairs and get the room back in order. It’s important to be mindful of students with allergies, Cowen says, as well as students who may have a fear of animals. Langford recalls one student who was terrified of dogs, but would come and look in from the doorway. Eventually she entered and was able to pet a dog.

At some point, they’d like to expand the program to include other animals as well. Cowen credits the pet therapy organizations for their collaboration and is excited to have community involvement in the program. “The organizations have been great to work with and really supportive of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Cowen says. “The volunteers have been just wonderful. They want to interact with the students and they want this opportunity, so we’ve talked about potentially growing the program in different ways. That’s something we’re always thinking about doing in a very thoughtful way.”

Two dogs meeting each other
Pet therapy dogs Clayton and Willis exchange greetings.

For Carol Roy G’00 and her little pal Willis, an 11-year-old Jack Russell terrier mix, the program is a welcomed outing. “He likes the attention and as soon as I get this bandana out, he comes running over and practically puts his head in it because he really enjoys coming here,” Roy says.

Roy is co-secretary of Pet Partners of CNY and in her sixth year with the organization. She worked at Syracuse University, mostly in student services, for 23 years. When she retired in 2014, she knew she’d miss interacting with students, but the program has taken care of that for her. “A college setting is a wonderful place to enhance that human-animal relationship and to just have a place where students who don’t own a dog can come and pet the dogs,” she says.

When Roy first learned about local pet therapy opportunities, she signed on. “Initially I had to take a course,” she says. “Now every two years Willis and I have to go through an evaluation. They test for temperament, obedience and the relationship between the dog and handler. They want to know, for example, is the handler an advocate for the dog?”

Relationship and community building is evident in the Walters Pet Therapy Room. There is dog-centric talk, lively conversation, laughter, stories and lots of selfies with the dogs—as well as all those affectionate interactions with the four-legged friends. “It’s probably the happiest place on campus,” Hornstein says.

Jay Cox

This story was first published on January 3, 2020 and last updated on .

About the Barnes Center at The Arch

The Barnes Center at The Arch is a state-of-the-art health, wellness and recreation complex. As the hub for student wellness, it features programs, services and offerings that promote holistic health and well-being all in one accessible, centralized space on campus. Further enhancing the student experience, the Barnes Center includes an integrated wellness team delivering student-centered, inclusive care and programs. The team approaches health and wellness holistically, encompassing mind, body, spirit and community.


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