The Mercyhurst College Counseling Center has a new staff member with an unusual job description: be friendly, gentle, patient and, by all means, wag your tail joyfully.
Bailey, a four-month-old Havanese, is the counseling center’s first “therapy dog in training,” and the pooch that can do no wrong. The staff is entranced, the work study students can’t get enough of him and the patients are always on time for their appointments.
Mercyhurst Wellness Director Dr. Judy Smith has long espoused the merits of having a therapy dog on campus. She’s used them in the past for depression screening events and, most recently, to help Mercyhurst dancers cope with the tragic loss of Jenni-Lyn Watson, a junior dance major who was murdered in her hometown near Syracuse, N.Y., while on Thanksgiving break last year.
“Those dogs were visibly helpful to the girls,” Smith said. “They can make a genuine difference in helping people cope with life’s physical and emotional challenges.”
A therapy dog is trained to provide affection and comfort to people in stressful situations, be they in hospitals, nursing homes or, in this case, schools. They come in all sizes and breeds, with temperament the most important characteristic.
While a toy dog, the Havanese is sturdy. Weight can vary, but most weigh from 7 to 13 pounds.
Bailey appears to have the makings of a good therapy dog but only time will tell, said Smith, who with her granddaughter Bethany Robison, an incoming Mercyhurst freshman, owns the small companion dog. Smith is overseeing Bailey’s training and, so far, he is reveling in human contact and is content to be petted and handled – all good signs.
“Bailey is also very portable, maneuvers easily in small places, and he’s hypoallergenic, so he’s perfect for us and the students we serve,” said Smith, who houses Bailey in her office on the second floor of the Cohen Student Health Center during the day and takes him home with her at night.
She said Bailey will be eligible for certification as a therapy dog after a year and is expected to take the qualifying exam after Jan. 6, 2012. The first couple months of his training has focused on socialization, house training, sights and sounds experiences and puppy classes. Obedience classes are next, but the overriding consideration remains temperament. Does he stay calm when startled by sudden movements? Is he receptive to being handled? Does he react skittishly to loud sounds? Is he mellow as opposed to aggressive?
All of those characteristics will be evaluated in time but, for now, Bailey is one little bundle of puppy love and a delight to all who encounter him.