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CU Boulder Brings Dogs to Campus for Canine-assisted Therapy Pilot Program

November 23, 2018

Megan Shih, left, and Heather Locke walk Toby, left, and Bell before an appointment with a student on Tuesday. The therapy dogs are part of a pilot program started this month at the University of Colorado.

Bell flopped on the floor, eyebrows slightly arched, as Toby circled around her with his tail wagging.

The 11-year-old rescue and 18-month-old Goldendoodle were meeting for the first time at the University of Colorado’s Center for Community on a recent afternoon, and they are among the university’s newest therapy providers.

At the beginning of November, CU launched a canine-assisted therapy pilot program . Toby, the Goldendoodle with curlicue fur, a plaid bandana and a matching green vest, visits with students and their therapists on Tuesdays. Bell, the rescue with large brown eyes and a red collar that reads “Therapy Dog,” visits on Thursdays.

Both lean their bodies into your knees while you sit, and they’re meant to bring comfort to students who might otherwise feel uncomfortable in therapy.

“Dogs have been included in therapy for a while,” said Monica Ng, the director of counseling and psychiatric services. “This is not a brand-new idea, but we’re really excited to be able to bring them in.”

Already, CU providers said, the dogs have made a difference for students seeking counseling services.

“I work with the eating disorder treatment team, and I do case management with that group,” said Heather Locke, a triage counselor who adopted Bell more than eight years ago. “Sometimes it’s difficult to engage those students, and when we’ve let them know the dog was going to be there, it made the difference.”

Bell, she said, is very tuned into people. When they lived in Newport, R.I., Bell worked with people in a group home for adults, at the local homeless shelter and with substance abuse groups.

Here, less than a month into her new gig, Bell looks expectantly at Locke when she retrieves the special collar and leash that signify she’ll be meeting with students.

“She really seems to enjoy it,” Locke said.

In the mornings before Toby comes to campus, his owner and post-MSW social work fellow, Megan Shih, takes him for a 3-mile run to ensure he’s calm.

She’s heard from another CU provider that a student she is working with feels much more comfortable opening up with Toby’s calm presence in the room.

“He does spend most of his days being a lot more calm, which he’s really good at,” Shih said. “For whatever reason, when we take him home, he springs back into energy and is very playful at home, which I don’t mind. But I definitely have to be mindful about making sure he gets really good exercise before coming in.”

Bell and Toby take breaks every two hours, including walks, during their days at CU. They went through two-day interviews before starting their jobs, and they have their own electronic medical record scheduling so they can be booked for sessions. They had to provide proof of immunization and obedience training, and they even have their own liability insurance.

The pilot program launch comes amid an increase in demand for mental health services on campus. Student health and wellness programs had 52,093 visits last fiscal year, which included behavioral health and psychiatric services, walk-ins, and workshops and groups. Two years prior, they had 47,980 visits.

At the end of the school year, Ng said the team will use a survey to assess whether to continue the pilot program. So far, the reception from staff and students has been positive, she said.

Meanwhile, Toby stood by, tail still wagging, and Bell stretched and shook before sitting at Locke’s feet, waiting expectantly for some petting.

Cassa Niedringhaus: 303-473-1106, cniedringhaus@dailycamera.com

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