Drexel University therapy dog bridges gap between physical and mental health

One employee at Drexel University has meetings with about 15 to 20 students a day, but he spends most of them sleeping in his very own office bed. He doesn’t greet students with a handshake, but he’ll probably lick their face. His name is Jersey, and he is the university’s resident therapy dog.

The four-year-old Carolina dog mix came to the university in fall 2014 by way of a major effort by owner and handler Kathryn Formica. She is the Drexel University Assistant Director of Recreation – Health, Fitness, and Wellness and shares her office in the Drexel Recreation Center with Jersey two days a week.

On those days, students are welcome to visit Jersey where they can spend some time with the certified therapy dog. According to Formica, it’s a great way for students to unwind from the stresses of school.

Jersey, Drexel University's on-site therapy dog, complete with his own university ID card. Photo by Hanbit Kwan
Jersey, Drexel University’s on-site therapy dog, complete with his own university ID card. Photo by Hanbit Kwan

“Jersey’s role here is all about integrating mental and physical health. Students know they can work on their physical health at the gym, but improving their mental health can be as easy as petting a dog for five minutes,” she said.

Formica said the response to Jersey on campus has been incredible.

“He has a few regulars who come in and see him every day. The number of students he sees varies depending on the time of year or whether its finals week. Some days we see five, others twenty,” Formica said. “It’s instant smiles when I take him for walks around campus.”

Owner and handler Kathryn Formica with Jersey. Photo by Hanbit Kwan
Owner and handler Kathryn Formica with Jersey. Photo by Hanbit Kwan
The one and only

Jersey’s impact extends beyond Drexel’s own campus; Formica said she constantly receives messages from universities across the country interested in getting therapy dogs themselves. Drexel’s own neighbors at the University of Pennsylvania are very close to introducing their first therapy dog.

Despite Jersey’s effect at Drexel, he almost never made it to campus. Formica said it was a challenge convincing the university that the benefits outweighed the risks.

Hospitals and nursing homes, well aware of the benefits, often contract therapy dogs and their handlers for rehabilitation and relaxation purposes with patients. The dogs have been shown to have calming abilities, such as helping lower patients’ blood pressure and their anxiety.

“I didn’t get the best response when I first brought up the idea of a dog on campus,” Formica said. “But the conversation eventually changed from ‘no’ to ‘how can we make this work?'”

The university was largely concerned with the risk of allergies and other safety issues, but this wouldn’t be the first time the university brought a dog to campus.

Drexel hosted its first “Puppy Pawlooza,” an event where students can pet and play with therapy dogs on campus amidst the stress of final exams, a few years ago. Universities nationwide host similar events, but Formica wanted to be the first to keep a therapy dog on campus full time.

From shelter to university
"Kathryn, where's my coffee?"
“Kathryn, where’s my coffee?”

After her plan for a therapy dog program was approved, Formica worked with the Delaware County SPCA to find a perfect candidate for the job: calm, intelligent, and friendly. Jersey, a rescue from a high-kill South Carolina shelter, fit the bill. The pair then began a rigorous two months of training to receive their therapy dog certification, a process that usually takes a year.

“People tend to think that because Jersey’s a therapy dog, he’s above the rest. But the fact is, he’s still a dog. He gets spooked like other dogs. He gets tired,” Formica said.

To combat exhaustion, Jersey spends only two days a week on campus. He recently started going to doggy daycare once a week for socialization.

Like any rescue animal, Jersey had difficulties in adjusting to his new life. He’s wary of construction workers in hardhats, which Formica said she attributes to a bad memory before their time together.

“I don’t think he had the best life where he was,” she said.

A dog with 3,000 owners

Formica said she has thought about how much easier it could have been to raise a puppy for the therapy dog program, but she’s happy she and Drexel’s students, faculty, and staff could give Jersey a home at the university instead.

Jersey, pictured with me for scale
Jersey, pictured with me for scale

The kind-eyed, calm dog isn’t much of a cuddler, Formica said, but he knows when she’s having a rough day. He isn’t one to play much with his toys, either, but loves low-key pats and belly rubs. That’s just the kind of dog students at the fast-paced Drexel University need, where school is year-round and a semester is only ten weeks.

“I want the university to think of him as their dog. He’s 3,000 students’ dog,” Formica said.

Formica said she wanted a dog who could be there when students needed him, not one that would come and go with a campus event like Puppy Pawlooza. She will often schedule meetings with students who have a hard time making his office hours and plans what she calls “puppy playdates” with students to make sure he will be around.

Jersey has a dedicated following of students both on and off campus. Formica maintains his Facebook and Twitter profiles with updates and photos of Jersey.

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