Every year during finals and midterm seasons, squeals of joy can be heard in libraries and common spaces around campus. Is it free food or coffee? Discovering that a final is take-home? No, it’s the appearance of the biggest celebrities on Wellesley’s campus: therapy dogs. They have gained an almost cult-like following on campus, but few know about their journey to get here.
How does a dog become a therapy dog? The first and most obvious step is that the owner must decide to train their dog to become a therapy dog. Owners may put their dogs in training for a variety of reasons, but often a personal experience with illness or injury plays a role. One owner decided to put her golden retriever, Jersey Girl, into training because of her experience with the difficulties of long-term illness and immobility. Another dog owner, Kate Haviland, put her golden retrievers Thunder and Lightning into training after seeing the profound effect that therapy dogs can have on those with chronic illnesses.
“When I was a little kid, my grandmother spent eight years flat on her back in a nursing home…She couldn’t even talk. That stuck with me, so when we first started doing [therapy dog visits] we went to visit patients in nursing homes just to give them some kind of joy in their lives,” she said.
Therapy dogs must undergo a training and accreditation process. The dogs at Wellesley mainly come from two organizations: Dogs Building Opportunities for Nurturing and Emotional Support (BONES) and the Pets and People Foundation, both of which are based in Massachusetts. To be certified by BONES, Jersey Girl went through a two-hour certification process to see if she could withstand being in a crowded environment and remain calm in the often-hectic setting of a nursing home or school. However, as Jason Lipsett, owner of Portuguese water dog, Neko, explained, that’s not all the process entails.
“[There’s] definitely a lot of training before committing to get [a dog] certified. When I decided to do that, it was all about choosing the right organization. I did an orientation with Pets and People Foundation,” he said. “I took a class that would train him to take the actual test. [The test entailed] learning lots of commands and ensuring he was comfortable in lots of different situations,” he said.
The dogs may also learn other specialized skills that aid them in their duties. For instance, Haviland’s dogs are trained to speak and whisper on command so that they can help therapists treat patients with a fear of dogs.
This training makes the dogs calmer and more docile, helping them connect with people who might be less familiar with dogs. Melissa Guzman ’21 grew up without a dog, but now understands the hype surrounding therapy dogs. Despite never owning a dog, she can notice a difference in the way the therapy dogs behave compared to other dogs.
“They seem to be really calm. They don’t even bark. I expected them to be more rowdy and jumping more, but they’re pretty relaxed,” she said.
Therapy dogs serve in a variety of environments. For instance, Jersey Girl has served at Boston Marathon bombing survivor events, while other dogs volunteer at retirement homes and libraries. Though therapy dogs may work in many different locations, some dogs develop favorite places. Dogs often prefer colleges because of the enthusiasm of the students. Wellesley in particular stands out for golden retrievers Thunder and Lightning.
“They love coming to Wellesley College. It’s their favorite place to come,” Haviland said.
Other dogs, like Anne Batchelder’s golden retriever Sadie, have more permanent assignments. Batchelder, a retired Wellesley College physical education instructor, trained Sadie from a young age for her now full-time job at Wellesley Alzheimer’s center, which she visits every day. For Sadie, visiting Wellesley is a break from her ‘real’ job.
Many students want therapy dogs to visit campus more often. Some students also wish that there were more kinds of therapy animals on campus. Liz Bonecki ’21 wants therapy rabbits or lizards, while Cristina Chen ’20 wants therapy cats, or, if possible, therapy pandas.
In their free time, the therapy dogs of Wellesley lead normal lives. Thunder and Lightning are family pets who are spoiled rotten and love eating string cheese. Jersey Girl spends her time hanging out with her feline best friend, swimming and playing in the snow.