Counseling Center brings Pet Therapy initiative to campus

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Therapy dog Stella holds office hours for students in the Counseling Center through their new Pet Therapy initiative REBECCA KLINGER / THE FLAT HAT

The week of Feb. 18, the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center introduced a new initiative, pet therapy, starring a trained therapy dog named Stella. Stella and her owner and handler Dr. Mark Sullivan will meet up to three students at a time during Stella’s “office hours” Wednesdays and Fridays in the Counseling Center. 

Stella has been a favorite canine visitor during past finals seasons, appearing as a guest on the first floor of the Earl Gregg Swem Library alongside other dogs as a way to take a break from studying. 

Sullivan said that he believes pet therapy can have an important impact on students. 

“I remember what it was like to be a student, even though it was the Dark Ages, and if they had this when I was going through school, I definitely would have taken advantage of it,” Sullivan reflected. 

“I remember what it was like to be a student, even though it was the Dark Ages, and if they had this when I was going through school, I definitely would have taken advantage of it,” Sullivan reflected. 

Sullivan became Stella’s owner after his elderly neighbor moved into an assisted living home. After years of treating animals as a veterinarian, Sullivan was immediately confident that Stella’s temperament was like nothing he had seen before and that she would make an excellent therapeutic resource. 

“I think she was born to do this,” Sullivan said. 

After realizing Stella’s talents, Sullivan initiated the process of registering her as a therapy dog with Pet Partners, an accredited therapy animal program. Sullivan noted the lengthy training that he and Stella had to go through before they were eligible to participate in pet therapy sessions.  

“We had to go through basic obedience and get a ‘good citizenship certificate,’ and then you have to pass a test of some fairly hard things, like how she responds to medical situations,” Sullivan said. “So, how she reacts to wheelchairs or maybe a bed pan crashing to the floor, how she does with other dogs or when people are yelling. Mainly she just has to have the temperament that is easy going.” 

When Stella isn’t spending time with students at the College of William and Mary, she also visits the Williamsburg Regional Public Library and interacts with young readers there as a welcome surprise. 

According to Sullivan, he and Stella are both enthusiastic about their new pet therapy appointments in the Counseling Center.  

After hearing many students express a wish for an animal connection, Sullivan approached an old client from his veterinary clinic who also works at the Counseling Center. He asked if there was another way besides library visits that Stella could support students. 

“I went to the Counseling Center and saw a client of mine, I was surprised to see her there, and I asked if this was something anyone would be interested in,” Sullivan said. 

Soon after, Stella was welcomed onto the staff.       

Students at the College have expressed excitement over the new program. Haein Jo ’19 was eager to schedule an appointment with Stella when she learned about the new initiative. She said that pet therapy would complement the Wellness Center’s other offerings designed to bolster student health. 

“I heard about the pet therapy from Student Happenings … and I’m also part of a meditation workshop that they have in the Wellness Center, so I was so very excited,” Jo said. 

In addition to expressing her eagerness to meet Stella, Jo explained how meaningful and restorative animal connection can be for people. 

“I’ve done a lot of human, de-human therapy before, but I feel like the best thing that I could get from this pet therapy is being able to hold on to something and just the physical comfort that you get from being around a pet who’s not going to judge you,” Jo said.

“I’ve done a lot of human, de-human therapy before, but I feel like the best thing that I could get from this pet therapy is being able to hold on to something and just the physical comfort that you get from being around a pet who’s not going to judge you,” Jo said. 

Jessica Cahn ’22 said that this therapy would be a comfort to her while missing her own pet.  

“I always miss my dog back home so much, so I think that it’s such a great alternative to be able to make an appointment just to spend time petting a dog,” Cahn said. “I’m actually so excited to try this out.” 

Sullivan said he hopes students will utilize this time to relax and take care of themselves. 

“There’s just something about petting a dog … and she loves it too, this is her favorite thing to do,” Sullivan said.