If you’re having a “ruff” day, one resource to try on campus is dog therapy. Offered at both Santa Fe College and UF, respective programs “Paws & Relax” and “Yappy Hour” connect students with Beau, Marco, Siggi and Gabe, the four campus therapy dogs.
Beau, the most well-known therapy dog, is 5 years old and handled by Terry Biehl. He can often be found at UF Health Shands Hospital, attending reading time with kids at William S. Talbot Elementary School or in the Santa Fe counseling office.
His favorite treat is freeze-dried chicken hearts, and when he’s not working, he likes to sit on the couch and stare out the window with his brother, Teddy, Biehl said.
Marco is Santa Fe’s second therapy dog, and he also works at the local Ronald McDonald House and Peaceful Paths.
He turned 3 years old last March and loves “manchego cheese” and “interacting with people. He doesn’t like hats though,” his owner, Sergio Caballero, said.
Both dogs are hypoallergenic and very mellow around newcomers.
The Santa Fe program was pioneered by Beau a year and a half ago after Lara Zwilling, coordinator of the Santa Fe Counseling Center, met him at a fair in town, Biehl said.
Beau usually visits for one to two hours, giving students and faculty much-needed stress relief.
Playing with a therapy dog reduces blood pressure and releases the endorphins serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and prolactin, the hormones responsible for happiness. It also reduces the amount of pain medication people need and lowers cortisol, the hormone responsible for stress, according to Biehl and a study by Rebecca Johnson of the University of Missouri.
In return, the therapy dog also experiences a flood of endorphins from being pet and played with.
At UF, Barbara Welsch began “Yappy Hour” seven years ago to reduce student stress, said Jennifer Stuart. Gabe and Siggi, the good boys of UF, are the pets of Stuart and Welsch.
Therapy dogs, with training, can work to relieve stress for anyone, even those in crises, Biehl added. They can improve depression, comfort rape survivors and even help people overcome their fear of dogs.
“We had a young lady who came in who was visibly shaken; she had tears in her eyes,” Zwilling said of a past “Paws & Relax” session. “She kind of relaxed when she saw Beau, and Beau went straight to her… They bonded instantly. It’s just amazing. They (therapy dogs) just really can read the body language of a student.”
Zwilling said attendance usually varies from 10 to 15 people during the Fall and Spring semesters at Santa Fe, and her office is hoping to garner more excitement for “Paws & Relax.”
This Fall, “Yappy Hour” will be 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. every Tuesday in the UF Counseling & Wellness Center.
“Personally, I think just about anyone can benefit,” Stuart said. “‘Yappy Hour’ gives students a break from stress and gives them an opportunity to connect, both with the dogs and with each other.”