Pet therapy offered to students

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Story by Abby SiegelStaff writer

When Skipper strutted into the crowded Curris Center, all attention snapped to him. A stream of smiling students wanted to know his name and pat him on the back.

All he had to do to get a passerby to stop was to sit and give them his puppy-dog eyes – or in Skipper’s case, a puppy-dog eye, because he has just one. As students admired his tricolored hair and his petite figure, he responded with a smile so wide his tongue showed.

That’s Skipper’s skill: being lovable. Skipper has been a Papillon therapy dog for all 12 years of his life, earning the nickname “the grand ole man of pet therapy” and has become one of the stars of the Calloway County Humane Society’s pet therapy program.

The Humane Society hosts a pet therapy session at Murray State once a month, sponsored by the Student Government Association. In addition to visiting the University, the pets – including cats, dogs, miniature horses and roosters – visit nursing homes, schools, make special request visits and participate in WATCH, a program for developmentally-disabled adults. In 2014, the pet therapy program logged 350 visits in the county.

“A fundamental difference between therapy dogs and service dogs is that a service dog is trained for the benefit of the owner,” said Cassie Barber, pet assisted therapy program coordinator. “The therapy dog is trained for the benefit of other people.”

Similar to service dogs, pet therapy dogs must go through a certification process that ensures their ability to be obedient and respond safely in loud environments. One test requires the dog to be stimulated in a similar environment to a nursing home with people in wheelchairs, crutches and loud moaning.

Not only can Skipper put “certified therapy dog” on his resume but he’s also a dog show champion and a frequent parade participant.

“We say Skipper always has a good day,” said Powell Henderson, Skipper’s owner.

Henderson and his wife have been involved in the Calloway County therapy program since they moved from New Mexico 12 years ago. Over the years, they have had four therapy dogs.

“As long as we have him, we will be involved,” Henderson said.

Pet therapy has scientifically-proven social and health benefits, including lowered blood pressure and decreased loneliness, according to a 2001 article by Sarah Brodie, published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing.  The presence of animals can help individuals relax and can promote holistic overall health benefits, according to Brodie’s research.

“Anyone involved with the program will tell you the real benefit is the joy the program brings to people and the smiles a visit puts on faces,” Barber said.

Henderson said he participates in pet therapy because it makes people happy.

“You get a lot of grins, a lot of laughter and a lot of smiles when you do it,” he said.

Students said they look forward to the monthly visit of cats and dogs in the Curris Center rocking chair lounge.

“It gives them a chance to de-stress and talk about the pets they have left at home,” Barber said.

Morgan Cash, junior from Graves County, Kentucky said she is a dog person and any dog she sees on campus brightens her day.

“Since you can’t have a dog on campus yourself living in the residential colleges, having one around on campus makes everyone happy, makes everyone smile,” she said.

Katie Belleville, junior from Belleville, Illinois, said being three hours away from her black lab is one of the toughest parts of being away at college.

“Pet therapy makes Murray feel more like home,” she said.

The pet therapy sessions scheduled for the rest of the semester are from 12 p.m. – 1 p.m., Oct. 14, Nov. 11 and Dec. 2., in the Curris Center rocking chair lounge.