Q&A with Kay Heatherly, Therapy Dog Committee chair

Trends Reporter

Alkek Library is hosting a pack of furry friends for students to meet during finals week in an effort to help Bobcats release tension during one of the most stressful times of year.

The second floor and SLAC will host stress release areas available for any student wanting to alleviate tension. The event is hosted by Dog Lovers of Alkek with assistance from Divine Canines from Austin. The University Star spoke with Kay Heatherly, chair of the therapy dog committee, about the dogs and this growing stress-relieving trend.

Ernest Macias: How did the dog therapy event get started?
Kay Heatherly: The Dog Lovers of Alkek saw that UT had it, and if UT can do it we can do it too. We were watching what other schools did during finals time and we saw this trend. We made the proposal to bring the dogs in December 2012. Then we had our pilot program in spring 2013. This will be our third time having the event.

EM: Why bring dogs to Alkek? How are they effective?
KH: Dogs make people happy. Studies have shown that. People who pet a dog for 15 minutes instantly raise their happy hormone level. It helps people relax. All it takes is a look at the faces of the people participating and you see they’re having a good time.

EM: Do therapy dogs visit other places or is it just libraries?
KH: It is a big trend in libraries, but therapy dogs are everywhere. They even have them in airports.  When the explosion happened in Bastrop they were there to help people. They also went to Austin during the SXSW accident to visit the victims and their families. They go to places where people need comfort and stress relief. We brought them to Alkek because we know people are stressed during finals. It’s a way of helping.

EM: Can any dog participate?
KH: These dogs are very well trained and so are their humans. The dogs have to go through a rigorous training to get certified. Divine Canines, the non-profit we work with from Austin, has its own special program to train dogs.  They require canine citizen certification prior to joining. The dogs have to take and pass a test. Basically, they are trained to be calm in situations that average dogs wouldn’t normally be. They are very sweet dogs.

EM: Are there special breeds of dogs that work best as therapy dogs?
KH: We have a wide range of dogs coming. A lot of dogs that could be seen as aggressive are coming, but they are trained to be therapy dogs. We have everything from Chihuahuas to a Great Dane mix and a pit bull mix.  This time we will have two to three dogs in each space for a total of four or five dogs at any given time. We have increased the amount of dogs at each event.

EM: How do students respond to the dogs?
KH: Their faces light up and there’s a lot of hugging involved. They start talking about their dogs back home and I even saw some people cry. The trainers have the dogs do tricks and entertain the students. There’s lots of smiling too. We received feedback and students told us how much they loved the dogs and what a good time they had. They thanked us for helping them relax.

EM: What organizations are involved with this event?
KH: Alkek Library came up with the idea to bring the dogs. We work with Divine Canine in Austin. The people that come with their dogs are volunteers. They do it because they love to do it. We also have some local dogs from Pet Partners. This year, the Student Learning Assistance Center offered to provide extra space and staff to have more dogs on the fourth floor of the library. We also have a Texas State professor, Elizabeth Hartwig, who is bringing her dog to participate in
the event.