The latest graduating class at Radford University is an unusual breed. And as one student named Jordan walked across the stage, he was roasted by the emcee for not knowing how to sit or lie down on his first night of class.
On April 24, four dogs — accompanied by their handlers — took part in the university’s first “barkalaureate” celebration. The dogs are in the final stages of training to be therapy dogs, tasked with spreading warmth and boosting morale across campus as part of the new Tartan Tails program.
“Sometimes petting or spending a few minutes with a dog may be just the thing to calm a few nerves, give a much-needed study break or brighten a busy or challenging day,” said Susan Trageser, vice president for student affairs at Radford prior to the ceremony.
Two additional dog-and-handler teams were celebrated at Radford’s Carilion campus in Roanoke the same day.
The half-dozen dogs are a notable presence on the campus of about 6,000 students. But Radford is far from the only college utilizing canine companions to improve mental health on campus.
Roanoke College has Milo, who spends most of his time with the school’s student athletes. Bluefield University has a Labrador retriever named Hazel serving in its Center for Counseling and Wellness. And Virginia Tech has four dogs with very full social calendars.
They’re part of a growing movement as colleges look to supplement their mental health programs for students and staff alike.
Radford’s initiative was spearheaded by First Lady Kay Danilowicz, who attended the ceremony with her boxer mix, Bainne. She and former faculty member Katrina Hundley have each been hosting weekly “Yappy Hours” at McConnell Library on Radford’s main campus throughout the school year. Bainne (pronounced Bahn-ya) and Hundley’s dog, Apollo, were the first to get registered as therapy dogs serving the campus.
Danilowicz said Radford’s program was modeled after a therapy dog program at Oklahoma State University. She and Radford President Bret Danilowicz participated in that program with their previous dog, Sandy, when Bret was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Kay supervised a speech-language pathology clinic at OSU.
When Bret and Kay Danilowicz arrived at Radford last summer after a stint at Florida Atlantic University, they were thrilled to find that Radford was already considering launching a therapy dog program. As she fed Bainne a specialty “pupcake” after the ceremony, Kay noted her hopes for growing the program in the years to come. She wants to select the next class of trainees this summer.
For now, the dog teams are focused on passing their registration exams in May.
Jordan, who trained with Radford’s Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Angie Mitchell, sits for treats and pets at the campus celebration on April 24. Photos by Lisa Rowan.
(By the way, Jordan now knows how to sit, lie down, and walk on his leash, though he’s not the best at turning to the camera for group photos.)
At Virginia Tech, quartet of dogs offer connection, comfort
Though she had her experience from OSU to guide her, Kay Danilowicz quickly discovered another expert just a few miles away from her new home in Virginia: Trent Davis, counselor and coordinator of animal-assisted therapy at Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center.
The center has four dogs on its roster: Derek and Epcot, who live with Davis, and Josie and Wagner, who each live with another staffer at the center. All four dogs are Labrador retrievers who were initially trained to be guide dogs but were released due to minor medical issues. Epcot joined the team in February just prior to his second birthday.
While scheduling varies from dog to dog at Tech, Davis said that each dog attends approximately 1,000 group and individual therapy sessions each year, along with around 50 events on campus and in the local community. Davis adopted Tech’s “founding” dog, Moose, in 2013 and is now finishing his 10th year working with dogs on campus-full time. The therapy dogs have more than 15,000 followers on Instagram and sell T-shirts through Blacksburg sportswear store Alumni Hall, with some of the proceeds going toward the care and keeping of the dogs.
Davis said that Tech’s goal for the dogs is to increase connection and reduce stigma around mental health. Feedback has shown that the dogs increase interaction and wellbeing among students and foster a sense of community.
“You can put your hands on [the dogs] and have a relationship with them,” Davis said. “It’s not abstract.” That positive relationship with the dogs can extend beyond graduation, keeping alumni and family members engaged with the on-campus community of more than 30,000.
Studies support use of therapy dogs for student wellbeing
For pet lovers, it’s easy to see the benefits of having dogs patrolling a college campus among students and staff.
Students who have pets at home are easily drawn to Milo, who comes to work at Roanoke College most days with Head Athletic Trainer Gabi Oney. He has a plush bed on the floor of her office, but spends most of his time roaming around the Jim Buriak Athletic Training Clinic, visiting students receiving treatments or rehabbing from injuries. In the evening, he goes to practices, where he greets student-athletes on the sidelines (and occasionally intercepts a ball).
Therapy dog Milo sits with Roanoke College Head Athletic Trainer Gabi Oney, attends soccer practice, and comforts a student athlete receiving heat treatment, from left to right. Left photo by Lisa Rowan. Center and right photos courtesy of Gabi Oney.
Meeting Milo often opens up conversations with students, Oney said, because it gives her a chance to ask about their own pets, who may be at home far away from campus. “You talk to them a little bit about home and get to know them better,” she said, “And they feel a little more comfortable and confident being on campus.”
Academic studies show support for therapy dogs in a campus setting.
A 2015 study found that students who interacted with a dog reported decreased anxiety and negative moods. In 2016, a study found that first-year college students who participated in an eight-week animal-assisted therapy program felt less homesick and more satisfied with their lives.
In a more recent example, a 2021 study looked at the impact of therapy dogs on at-risk college students — those struggling academically, or managing mental health conditions or learning disabilities, for example.
Some of the students participated in a four-week program about managing academic stress. Other students were placed in a four-week program where they hung out with therapy dogs.
The students who interacted with the dogs ended up with a greater improvement in executive function – like memory, paying attention, and prioritizing tasks – than the students who didn’t.
Regardless of the formality of an animal therapy program, the mere presence of animals on campus can break down some walls for students, said Mary Renck Jalongo, professor emerita at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Jalongo is also a therapy dog handler and evaluator, and editor of the book The Canine-Campus Connection: Roles for Dogs in the Lives of College Students.
“Many students are more willing to participate in events designed to support mental health when the dogs are present because it lessens the perception that they need help and the social stigma sometimes associated with accessing those services,” she said.
What it takes to have therapy dogs on campus
Despite many dogs having a natural ability to provide comfort and happiness for the people they meet, utilizing one on campus isn’t a quick decision.
“These dogs tend to be purebred, purchased from a breeder specializing in this type of animal, raised from puppy to adult and cared for and trained for one to two years,” Jalongo explained of the dogs often tapped to serve in a therapy role, either as a single-facility dog or as one who visits various types of locations in a community. She said many organizations host fundraisers to offset costs of the care, keeping and training for a therapy dog.
Clockwise from top left: Huckleberry, who lives with professor of philosophy and executive director of faculty development Heather Keith, is a very good boy. Milo attends soccer practice at Roanoke College. Jordan is greatly improved since starting training at Radford. Photos of Huckleberry and Jordan by Lisa Rowan. Milo photo courtesy Gabi Oney.
Radford’s inaugural class of pets and their volunteer handlers trained for 14 weeks after they completed a screening process. Two trainers from Hi-D-Ho Dog Training in Blacksburg worked with the teams, and students sometimes stepped in to help the dogs practice their skills.
The university community raised nearly $2,000 this spring to pay for training, registration and other expenses of readying the Tartan Tails teams. Those funds also go toward the uniforms: plaid vest-style harnesses for the dogs along with shirts that clearly identify the human handlers. The uniforms are intended to help students and staff on campus recognize the teams and feel confident approaching them.
Danilowicz’s ultimate goal is to have enough therapy dogs comping to campus that various university offices, groups or departments can easily request a visit from a therapy dog. Tartan Tails’ success will rely on having volunteers willing to put in the time to train and work with their pets.
Davis of Virginia Tech said that therapy dogs can occupy a tricky space: They represent and serve the campus community, but a human handler owns the dog, not the college.
But cost isn’t slowing the interest in bringing this type of engagement to campus. Davis said he’s talked with schools as far away as South Dakota and California that are interested in starting therapy dog programs.
“You have to have a champion” on campus who can persist for several years, he said. It takes time to find the right dog and the right situation – and even once you find a dog that’s a right fit, integrating them into campus activities must happen slowly.
“You need someone patient and persistent, who insists on doing it the right way,” Davis said. Eventually, “it can change the campus community in a positive, permanent way.”
How to train your guide dog
If you have a dog, you probably think your dog is great. And we’re sure they are. But they may not be a perfect fit for service as a therapy dog.
“Dogs are highly individual,” college professor and therapy dog handler Mary Renck Jalongo warned. “Usually, the therapy dogs best suited for a busy college campus are confident, calm, friendly and enjoy lots of mental stimulation.”
Trent Davis, who heads up the therapy dog program at Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center, said he considered three other dogs before selecting Epcot as the school’s newest therapy dog. “Even within service dogs, there’s a spectrum” between energetic dogs and calm dogs, he explained. A therapy dog needs to hit the right spot on that spectrum and enjoy a busy social life.
Milo, Gabi Oney’s dog on hand for student-athletes at Roanoke College, is an outlier. Oney adopted Milo through a rescue and didn’t get to meet him in person before adopting him, let alone envision him as a therapy dog.
“You never really know what you’re going to get with an adult rescue dog,” she said. “I took a gamble. But it turned out to be the best decision. He’s been so easy.”
Milo showed an aptitude for obedience skills early, and as the athletic training staff prepared to welcome students back to campus for fall of 2022, Oney joked that Milo could come to campus to boost morale. But that offhand “what if?” quickly turned into reality. Milo started coming to campus.
First, Oney and Milo completed basic obedience training for the American Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Test, which evaluates dogs on skills like sitting, staying in one place and walking on a leash. Then, Oney took dog handling training classes and completed additional training with Milo through Therapets of The Roanoke Valley, which is part of a national network run by nonprofit Pet Partners.
Pet Partners has 214 registered therapy animals teams in Virginia, most of them dogs (though there are also four rabbit teams, two miniature horse teams, and one cat team in the state, spokesperson Elisabeth Van Every said).
Several of those teams are at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Dogs On Call program, and Dr. Nancy Gee, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at VCU, is the chair of Pet Partners’ Human-Animal Bond Advisory Board.
“It was important to make sure that we were doing this correctly,” Oney said. She said she especially benefitted from the skills she learned to better advocate for Milo, such as identifying stress signals and how to adjust if he gets nervous in a crowd.
Milo graduated to therapy dog status in November 2022, after a second exam testing his reaction to stimuli like meeting someone using crutches or a walker, hearing a sudden loud noise, being pet clumsily and getting crowded by a group of people.
The college reimbursed Oney for Milo’s training once he passed his exam and completed registration.
Van Every of Pet Partners said that the online handler course costs $80, while the evaluation for a therapy dog usually costs between $15 and $30. Registration for new therapy dog teams costs $95, while renewal every two years costs $70.