Photo of Pearl, the Bernese Mountain dog, lying in the classroom waiting for someone to pet her. Photo credit: Shufen Deng
By: Julie Bobko, Shu Fen Deng, Jason Mokan, and Erik Lars Knudsen, UW Bothell School of Business
It was a Monday, but not your usual dreary kind. On the University of Washington Bothell Campus, I found myself headed to class. Upon entering the narrow, air-conditioned classroom, I was greeted with wagging tails and panting mouths. Big happy eyes, furry feet, and the faint smell of fur and slobber instantly comforted me. All of a sudden I felt relieved and energized. As if the stresses of the upcoming week had melted away.
Spread out among the tables were three different dogs with their handlers. Laurie Hardman, founder of College Dogs, sat near the large windows, waving a brightly colored hand fan at her powder blue curls. Her cat eye glasses, yellow floral dress, and bright smile were noticeable from the moment I walked in. Beside her, very still, laid CB, her Portuguese water dog. As another student pointed out CB’s inactivity Laurie laughed and said “Yeah I told them, no you can pet her. She’s not dead. That’s just her style”. CB was obviously an expert at her technique with the number of belly rubs she received that evening.
Laurie recalled for me the events that brought her to create the College Dogs program in 2010. She had received a phone call from a former resident director at the University of Washington to bring some dogs in during some stressful and anxiety-inducing midterms and the rest is history. Since then, College Dogs has visited thousands of local students to provide their therapy dog services. These services can look different but always consist of handlers bringing their beloved pups to settings like hospitals, nursing homes, mental health institutions, and schools. The dogs provide affection and comfort. They can even improve the mental health of those around them. I asked Laurie about her progam and she was more than happy to share all about College Dogs with me.
How have the dogs helped you personally?
LH: I actually started doing therapy work about 45 years ago. My very first Portuguese Water dog, the day after I brought her home as a puppy, I found out that I had mono. All I could do was stay home from work and sleep for about three weeks. That puppy curled up on my chest and slept with me hour after hour. She climbed off, took herself outside, potty trained herself, and she just kind of said “we’re going to do something… like hospital visits. She just kind of told me “we’re going to do it.” And that’s what we started to do!
Have you done any independent scientific research on how therapy dogs affect blood pressure, stress, etc?
LH: Actually, when I was working at one of the local high school districts for a while we did have the school nurse come in two days a week. Before I arrived she took the student’s blood pressure and then she came in at the end of the class when I was there and took heart rate and blood pressure, and it always improved”.
Can you talk about the certification process?
LH: I certified for the alliance of therapy dogs, which is an organization in Wyoming and it’s a pretty easy certification process really, because they don’t expect you to have the obedience trials skills just… a dog that can behave on a leash, that likes people, and is friendly. So when you become certified you go through the certification tests and then you have three observations before you get your paperwork sent in and then [you’re] certified.
What’s your protocol for someone who might have a fear of dogs?
LH: I was contacted by [a nine-year-old girl’s] parents and her psychologist, because she was so terrified of dogs, she could barely function. Never had anything happen to her by a dog. Nothing had ever happened. She couldn’t go to a friend’s house and spend the night, she couldn’t do anything because of dogs. The first Sunday I went to their house to meet with them, [the dog] was in her crate in the yard, like a zoo animal, and she stayed in the crate the whole time. Six weeks later, [the dog] remained in the crate except for the last five minutes. On the seventh week she was out of the crate for half the visit, and we started to pet [her]. Week one, she was just terrified, she was ready to jump and run and now I have pictures. She has started to walk the dog on her own.
Have you seen the dogs help individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues?
LH: I started a program called “Reading with Rover” for children with reading problems. And they can have those problems for all sorts of reasons, one of my little girls I worked with cannot read a great level because for nine years she’d been battling chemo for her cancer. She was way behind her class.
[There’s] many different age groups to work with, but … we just found that the stresses of college seem to be heavy. We started to go in just during midterms and finals and then it became every week to the three times a week minimum. We go in for crisis response, suicide responses.
Laurie and the other College Dog handlers, Susie and Marijke reflected on how they have seen their therapy dogs help college students. They have had people walk into the room with the dogs and start to cry. Students when they are done will say things like, “you know, I think I can go take my final now” or “this was the best part of my day, thank you so much, I needed that” or “I just needed that little boost of something to take me out of my stress”. Spending class with the College Dogs brought some comfort to all of us. It is easy to understand how much good they do.
College Dogs is a volunteer-run organization, made possible by donations and volunteers. If you would like to contribute to this wonderful organization, learn how to become a volunteer, or to arrange a visit, you can contact Laurie via the College Dogs website at collegedogs.org/contact-us.
This interview has been condensed for content and clarity. Link to full transcript