(Story by Michael Newsom – University of Mississippi)
Rowan’s tiny feet, luxurious brown-and-white coat and wagging tail bring big smiles to those who encounter him on the University of Mississippi campus, and strangers just can’t help but to stop and ask if they can pet him.
The springer spaniel-standard poodle hybrid, known as a “sproodle,” is named for Rowan Oak, home of Nobel prize-winning author William Faulkner. But Rowan isn’t just another cute canine on campus. He will be certified to work with clients at the University Counseling Center, on the third floor of Lester Hall, as the university’s first-ever therapy dog.
Katie Harrison, a UCC counselor, decided to pursue the idea to bring a therapy dog to campus, and last year began working with Zach DiGregorio, who was president of the 2019 Ole Miss senior class, which donated to the effort as part of its class gift.
Rowan will live with Harrison, but once he completes his training, he will be available for counseling sessions with students with her at the UCC and will be heavily involved in the counseling center’s outreach efforts.
“I am so thrilled for the students to get to experience all of the benefits of having a therapy dog here on campus, and I’m excited for them to be able to see him grow while he trains,” Harrison said.
While Harrison was in graduate school and living alone, she got a cockapoo and noticed the immediate benefits the dog’s presence had on her. The dog lessened her stress and anxiety, simply through snuggles and petting.
In the years since, research has come along to support the benefits of therapy dogs, and they have become common. Most other Southeastern Conference schools have therapy dogs, and students have been writing the UCC to request those services.
“Most people love a puppy,” Harrison said. “But there is also a lot of research supporting the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, particularly for college students with adjustment disorders and people being away from home and away from their pets. It’s also helpful for college students having homesickness and a really hard time adjusting to being without their family.”
It doesn’t stop there, she said.
“Animal-assisted therapy can also be helpful for students who have experienced trauma,” Harrison said. “I will be able to read cues from him when students are getting emotionally upset, or if something is triggering them. He will be trained to rub up against them and put his head down and be supportive figure there with them.”
Though Rowan will be required to train for a full year, he will be present on campus and easy to spot, thanks to a vest that says, “therapy dog in training.” Harrison, who does outreach work for the UCC, plans to have him out on campus mingling with the community while he grows and learns.
She also plans to have regular walks with Rowan that will allow anyone to benefit from the four-legged Rebel, even if they don’t necessarily need mental health counseling. The walks will be dubbed, “Get Goin’ with Rowan.”
“We can help de-stigmatize mental health treatment with Rowan,” Harrison said. “We can let students know we are there when they see him, and that it’s OK to talk to us, and it is OK to pet Rowan.”
So far, it seems Rowan, who came from a kennel in Norman, Oklahoma, is well suited for the role. He is flying through all his puppy training, was quickly housebroken and is very social already.
“He learns so quickly,” Harrison said. “It is shocking how smart he is. He also loves attention, so I think he is going to be a good fit.”
University Counseling Center Director Bud Edwards has high hopes for Rowan.
“Dogs have been used for quite a while in outreach programs on college campuses,” Edwards said. “Having Rowan be a part of the UCC services will give students a regular opportunity to interact with a trained therapy animal. I believe that he will become very popular in a relatively short period of time.”
Once he is certified, Rowan will have guidelines for how much he can work to prevent burnout, which can happen with therapy dogs. In the meantime, he will be a regular presence on campus.
“For now, he is in training and that means lots of kisses and snuggles and pets and him getting used to everything,” Harrison said. “I hope that students will take advantage of that. I also hope students will come by and say, ‘hi’ to Rowan and get to know him. Maybe they’ll see where the Counseling Center is located. We also hope it will break down barriers and show people that seeking mental health treatment is OK. Rowan is definitely there for them.”