Volunteers of College Dogs in front of the UW Bothell campus
(left: Jen & Finn , middle: Julie & Romio , right: Lisa & Mara)

By Jacquelyn Johnson and Bennett Jochim, University of Washington Bothell School of Business

As we waited patiently and eagerly for College Dogs to arrive, we were delighted to see our first visitor enter the classroom. It was Mara, a 3 year old gray labradoodle wearing a pink bandana for her special occasion. Behind Mara followed her handler Lisa Linville. After giving a warm welcome to our Professor Laura Umetsu, Mara eventually calmed down and everyone was invited to come say hello. Soon after, our other guests joined us; Julie Pease and Jennifer Woods accompanied by Romio and Finn, their respective therapy dogs. Romio had cow-like markings comprised of a black and white coat. Finn had a cream colored coat with light streaks of brown. At just 2 years old, Finn was the youngest dog in attendance. His face was full of excitement as he greeted our classmate Hannah with smiles and licks. Each dog sat patiently with their handlers as we discussed the work the dogs do for the community. Throughout the interview, Finn made his way around the room looking for treats, gently sticking his snout into backpacks and sitting with anyone willing to give him a pet. 

College Dogs is an uplifting organization dedicated to bringing smiles to local Seattle schools and retirement homes. Enthusiastic volunteers accompany their certified therapy dogs to each event, brightening the lives of the residents. Research indicates that the presence of dogs can reduce stress, anxiety, depression and provide a sense of comfort. For students, they experience many of these emotions when starting a new quarter, preparing for exams, or just balancing life and school. Giving residents the opportunity to interact with and pet dogs often brings them immense joy. Many residents of assisted living or memory care facilities had to part ways with their beloved furry companions as many retirement homes do not allow personal pets.

Through our interview with College Dogs, we learned that therapy dogs provide a different kind of support than a service dog does. Therapy dogs are trained to provide emotional support and comfort in specific environments for many different people, whereas service dogs are trained to perform tasks that help individuals with disabilities lead more independent lives.

(Picture of Hannah Dobes – UW Bothell Student and Mara – Dog)

What inspired you to register your dog as a therapy dog and volunteer with College Dogs?

Julie: That’s a very good question, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And so my dogs had someone introduce me to the program and my dogs needed training very badly. So they did training and after that they went to something called Board and Train [multiple in the Seattle area], where they spent like 10 days with a trainer. And part of the aftercare was going to therapy class and then I went wow! They’re actually really good at this! And they like it and I like it! And then I met this contestant community of people and it’s great!

Lisa: I thought it was a great way to give back to people and I feel like there’s so much an animal can give without words. There’s so many ways that they can be comforting to people. Even from the time that she was a small puppy, we’re walking her and she’s bringing smiles to people’s faces and joy, it’s just really nice to be part of that. I work at a college and my husband works in healthcare so it just felt like it was a good fit. With the pandemic we had more time to raise a puppy and go through the training and things like that.

How does this typically go? Do you go to a lot of schools? What kind of events do you bring them around to?

Lisa: The majority of the events we do are through College Dogs, who I think she (Laura) contacted. So it’s mostly been schools like colleges, universities. We’ve done reading night at an elementary school. That was not through College Dogs but through Western Washington Therapy Dogs. 

Do you ever interview people that see the dogs after to get their perspective on what benefits it brings them?

Julie: I have not. However we go every Saturday to a retirement community and memory care and it’s the one thing that everyone says is the thing they all look forward to, something that brings them a lot of joy. They wait for us, it’s the highlight of their week.

Even though College Dogs members don’t interview people to gain perspective on the service they provide, often the look on people’s faces is all the confirmation needed. As for our class, the atmosphere in the room instantly brightened and everyone’s faces reflected this. It was clear through subtle smiles and the tone of voice of those in attendance that even after the members of College Dogs had left, everyone was in a good mood compared to the average day.

How do the events typically go at those facilities?

Jen: Usually the residents will come into one room. Like a common rec area and the dogs will come through, we’ll come around and walk around the room and introduce the dogs to each of the residents. And the dog will sit hopefully cause they are doing what they should do haha. Sit next to the resident who may or may not want to pet them. And you kinda just go around the room and visit with the residents and let them pet the dogs.

Have you found that a specific breed is better for this kind of work? I noticed that all these dogs are similar.

Julie: We started out as a doodle group and so a lot of us are doodles. My two are doodles.

Jen: I also have a doodle at home too.

Julie: I think now we have 170 people there. Out of that number, I would say at least half are golden doodles. I’ve seen a lot of Labs. As a tester observer, I’ve seen almost everything. A greyhound, a whippet, I just tested a little Scottie.

Do the dogs need to be trained? If so, what is that process like? Are they registered as any kind of service animal?

Jen: To my knowledge, we can confirm this with Julie. So it is separate, there is an alliance therapy dog organization that you go through. You do three observations, different testing, and then you get certified as a therapy dog which is different from a service dog. So it is a different certification or distinction.

Lisa: For Alliance of Therapy Dogs, it’s a certification for a pet therapy team. The handler goes through background checks, you take a test to make sure you know all the rules, and then you do observations in the facilities. You have to do three classroom observations to test or observe. And you have to have a health certification, to make sure dogs are vaccinated. You have to recertify every year, renew every year and test.

Lisa: It’s about being a team. During training, they are observing both the dog and handler because you have to be able to be aware of your dog, what they are doing and redirect the dog. They are still dogs, they don’t have to be perfect haha.

What signs do you look for in them when they’re getting emotionally tired?

Lisa: It’s different with each dog. One of the things about having a therapy dog is it’s a lot about the relationship between the handler and the dog. You’re going to get to know your own dog’s signs. Maybe if they start shying away from people or just not wanting to interact, and maybe drooling, you know like stress signals from dogs. Sometimes they’re very subtle so that’s why, it’s kind of hard to describe, you know because it’s so individual to each dog how they’re going to show “I’m done”.

It’s good for any dog owner to pay attention to their own dog’s stress signals and remove them from situations that they’re being stressed in.

Do you see therapy dogs requested more or during any certain time of year?

Julie: Totally! When would you think?

Bennett: I would think the holidays.

Julie: Holidays, finals week, back to school. Unfortunately sometimes we get called at the last minute to support students grieving. There was a death at Seattle U and there was three of us that had to go.

Julie: We are trying out for a new program called Hope. There are three hundred therapy dogs across the United States, and when there is a major disaster they call you. Romio isn’t going to try for it but his mommy will try for it. We also have Camp Erin. It’s a grief camp, and it’s for children who have lost someone very close to them. Romio and Willow did Camp Erin for King County and we are doing it for Snohomish County next month.

Do you ever come across people who maybe you might be afraid of dogs in these events? Have you done any desensitization therapy?

Julie: I’ve seen it more times than not. I also know if someone is afraid I will take extra caution and keep their head away, I have not, Lori is doing that right now. Lori is the person who started college dogs. There was a girl who was very very afraid, and to the point where her name is Mimi, I can say it’s because she’s been working with us for years and she’s not in the medical field. Mimi when she started working with me, now they’re special friends, they see each other once a week. But when they started the dog stevie was in the car and mimi wouldn’t even get near the and then they took the dog and brought the dog out in the crate up to the point now mimi has a stevie over for sleepovers. So huge!

Laura: So Mimi started out being terrified of dogs and then they had to slowly go from hey get near the car with the dog inside and then maybe week by week more and more exposure and were now having sleepovers with the dog.

Julie: Yup she loves the dog now and I think they might actually get one. So huge!

What are your long term goals with therapy dogs?

Jen: For me I’m in the middle of changing careers, I want to become a therapist and I want Finn to be a part of that practice.

What made you (non-student guests) come to this event?

[ Talking with guests who came to see the therapy dogs] We learned about why people were drawn to attend this event. One person mentioned they had missed an opportunity at their University in Chicago. Rayon shared with us that “They had an event during finals where they had therapy dogs come in. I felt like I wanted to study so I didn’t go to the event and I kind of regretted it a little bit.” Another guest, Lisa shared that “Well I often hear of therapy dogs sent to specific schools after there was something or to retirement homes and I don’t think I’ve ever been around or been able to interact with owners of therapy dogs, to ask them questions and sort of get their side of the perspective to what they have dedicated so much time and energy for. And I’m just really glad to be here.”

Having College Dogs in class with us brought a sense of joy and comfort compared to the average class day. Learning about what they do for the community was wonderful. Listening to their response and stories it was evident that volunteering at local school was something they really enjoyed doing, for not only the community but for themselves. Naturally, the highlight for us was the delightful company of the dogs in the class.

Interested in getting involved with College Dogs or wanting College Dogs to come to your school or organization? Go to their website and request to get an event scheduled! You can stay connected with College Dogs through their Facebook group and their Instagram page (@collegedogswa). You can also sign up to join the College Dogs team with your own dog on their website and bring smiles to communities in Washington. If you’re interested in finding out more about the mental health benefits of therapy dogs,  the National Library of Medicine and TherapyDogs.com each have great pieces on the topic. This interview was edited for content and clarity.