Therapy dogs are the latest chapter in
Emory’s long legacy of supporting
student health and wellbeing.
It’s the day before finals, and Emory’s Media, Literature and Arts Outreach residential house on Eagle Row is buzzing with high-voltage anticipation about the week to come.
A jumbled landscape of Krispy Kreme boxes, cookies and fresh fruit blankets a communal snack table, where undergraduates linger to discuss this looming test, that essay. And it’s here, amid the spirited end-of-term clamor, that a dozen students have gathered for some stress-relief.
Crowding onto sofas, they listen as Elizabeth Neri 09MPH, a licensed clinical social worker at Emory’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) discusses insomnia, the effects of caffeine, breathing exercises and meditation. Heads nod along; some take notes.
Within minutes, the modest gathering seemingly triples — maybe quadruples— as students swarm from rooms, hallways, and fraternities and sororities from across the street.
Enter Finn, a brawny four-footed ambassador with tall, attentive ears, a thick coat and perpetually affable grin. The Emory photo ID on his vest identifies him as a CAPS therapy dog — one of two certified therapy dogs employed as contract staff at Emory’s CAPS. His serene older sibling, Beowulf, works primarily with one-on-one counseling; never-met-a-stranger Finn offers a public face to the program as a "canine outreach specialist."
Most here already know Finn or follow him on social media, recognizable from his frequent campus appearances — study breaks, orientations, athletic events and “Fun Finn Fridays,” casual gatherings that invite students to stop, talk and commune with a canine.
Today, he is a joyful distraction.
Hands eagerly reach out, plunging into dense coat, stroking soft ears. And just as impulsively, stories spill forth — talk of dogs back home, pets past and those yearned for after graduation.
The moment is an instant bridge for Colleen Duffy, a CAPS counselor and Finn’s handler. “Oh, do you have a dog? What’s their name?” she asks. “Finn is one of our therapy dogs at CAPS. My name is Colleen. I’m a psychologist who works with him.”
After an endless stream of hugs, selfies and a group photo, they’re off to Emory’s Centro Latinx, where the scene unfolds all over again — for Finn, another day at the office.
But don’t be fooled. Beneath the warm fuzziness, there’s a lot going on here.
For instance, you might not realize that Finn is visually impaired, a disability that can actually offer a bond for those struggling with their own challenges, or appreciate the long hours of training required for these casual interactions.
You might miss the way Finn forges quick connection, dissolving walls and building trust. Gradually, talking about emotions and stress and self-care becomes a little less intimidating, a little more natural, a little more, well, healthy.
Three years ago, Emory emerged among an early wave of universities to utilize animal-assisted therapy dogs, the latest chapter in CAPS’ long history of innovative outreach.
In fact, CAPS director Wanda Collins was only days into her role when Duffy approached her about adding a therapy dog. “I’d never had the experience of working with them, but I thought it sounded like a great idea,” recalls Collins, assistant vice president of Campus Life, who rallied quick administrative support.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Over the past five years, CAPS has experienced a 43 percent increase in requests for student counseling and psychological services, an uptick that mirrors national trends.
In fact, a new study released this year by the Pew Research Center found 70 percent of American teenagers now see mental health as a major problem among their peers, particularly issues of depression and anxiety, which are on the rise.
Across the nation, as more students arrive at college already stressed, reaching them where they live and work can be crucial, Collins says.
At Emory, Collins credits the rising requests in part to CAPS’ growing visibility — as more students know about services, they are being utilized. It helps that today's students are also more aware of — and likely to discuss — mental health than ever before, she adds.
And that makes incorporating therapy dogs into campus outreach a good fit, facilitating a non-threatening point of entry for important conversations.
“When I speak at campus events and ask who’s familiar with Beowulf and Finn, all hands go up,” she says. “They may not know where our offices are, but those dogs are already on their radar, which is fantastic.”
Canine therapy first emerged on Duffy’s own radar years ago. Working with trauma survivors in North Carolina, she noted the comfort they found in talking about childhood pets.
Duffy — who grew up in New Zealand around cats, not dogs — was intrigued.
But her eyes were fully opened in the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, when she volunteered with the American Red Cross at Ground Zero. “That’s where I saw therapy dogs comforting first responders,” she says. “It was powerful.”
Later, one of Duffy’s clients, who'd experienced significant trauma, became open to working with a dog to help engage with the outside world.
Like a cold nose on the back of her leg, it was a nudge.
Searching for information, she stumbled across an online photo of four-month-old Beowulf — “the hero of all heroes,” Duffy laughs — along with a link to master dog trainer Kimberly Brenowitz, who founded Animals Deserve Better/Paws for Life, a Marietta-based non-profit that rescues and trains service, assistance and therapy dogs.
Though her client was ultimately paired with an adult service dog, Duffy was fascinated by the puppy with soulful amber eyes whose parents had been bred for qualities found in Native American Indian Dogs, prized for their strength, loyalty and intelligence.
Once she won approval to bring Beowulf aboard, they began the long, rigorous training sessions — nearly every weekend for a year — required for therapy dog certification, which is renewed every two years.
Working as a team, they mastered a checklist of 21 activities, from basic commands to specific skills, such as accommodating sudden noise and motion, waiting for an invitation to greet humans, and ignoring other dogs while on the job.
Two years later, Duffy repeated the process when Finn joined CAPS. Today, she owns and cares for both dogs, who earn a monthly stipend to help with expenses.
On the job, Beowulf functions primarily as a therapy partner. Duffy’s clients may elect to meet with or without the dog, but an overwhelming majority request her. In session, she rests quietly on a cushion, eyes alert, awaiting a signal to approach, lie at someone’s feet or rest a chin upon a knee — small connections that can increase a sense of calm and yield a big biological impact.
The simple act of petting a dog helps release oxytocin — a bonding hormone, Duffy explains. Other studies have shown it also releases the "feel-good" hormones serotonin and prolactin, boosts endorphins and the mood-enhancer dopamine, and induces relaxation by lowering heart rate, blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol.
In sessions, Beowulf’s gentle persona works its own alchemy, even with clients indifferent to having a dog present. Sometimes, Duffy laughs, she thinks the dogs should have been named “Comfort” and “Joy.”
“Studies show that therapy dogs actually help with recidivism — they bring people back,” Duffy explains. “Therapy for some people can be painful. Beo is just an extra soothing presence, and that helps build trust.”
Today, therapy dogs can be found in pediatric oncology wards, veteran’s hospitals, hospice and dementia care, emergency rooms and trauma centers, rehabilitation units, school counseling offices and courtrooms — anywhere a soothing influence is needed.
Science supports it. Studies show that animal-assisted therapy can help lower blood pressure and anxiety and improve mortality rates in cardiac patients, decrease agitation in dementia patients, decrease symptoms of ADHD in children, and increase both motivation and engagement during rehabilitation therapies.
So it’s not surprising that the CAPS dogs have been invited into the classroom at Emory’s School of Medicine, at student orientation for the Physician Assistant program and stress breaks for nurse anesthesia students.
In fact, over the last three years requests for their appearances have surged, swelling to dozens of events each semester. During the pressure-cooker weeks before finals, the dogs are typically booked solid.
“They’re a wonderful resource, we’ve had them come to several events — I honestly think it helps draw a bigger crowd,” says Andrea McGowan, a senior majoring in human health and nutritional science, who serves as co-president of Emory’s chapter of Active Minds, a national organization that works to reduce the stigma that can surround mental health issues.
“There’s something about the unconditional love of a dog,” adds Active Minds co-president Ilana Ander, a senior majoring in international studies who’s interested in pursuing psychology. “Sometimes they help open, not even a conversation, but an awareness that it’s okay to admit you don't feel okay.”
Seeing the dogs at work on campus, Tharyn Giovanni Grant, a CAPS licensed clinical social worker, has witnessed their magnetic appeal. In January, Emory Athletics invited Finn (and CAPS) to an evening of men’s and women’s basketball with a theme of ending stigma around mental health.
“That night we were approached by easily 70 to 80 people,” Grant recalls. “Students would come to our table and say, ‘Oh, I heard that Finn was here,’ and that’s a wall gone, our way into a dialogue.”
“It was really rewarding to be in a space where talking about mental health wasn’t a big deal and could become a common thread of a conversation. Dogs help open that door.”
Therapeutic conversations can happen in many different spaces, notes psychologist Jane Yang 98C, associate director of outreach for CAPS. “And the dogs have been great at creating a point of connection between our agency and the community — they definitely draw people in,” she says.
“Fundamentally, I think human relationships tend to be fairly complicated,” Yang says. “With a dog, what you see is what you get. You can just be, without judgment. There’s a lot of power in that.”
That was evident last semester, when the Woodruff Library’s Instruction and Engagement team hosted a community-wide Pet Therapy Study Break during finals week. Over six hours, more than 300 students, faculty and staff dropped by to interact with service and therapy dogs, including Beowulf and Finn.
As they left, visitors were encouraged to describe their experiences on a white board, notes that ranged from “I needed this a lot” and “favorite part of finals” to “didn’t know I needed this until I walked by” and “highlight of my life — they gave me the love I craved.”
And scrawled in first-year German, "Ich habe kein stress weil ich hunde liebe."
(I have no stress because I love dogs.)
Editor's note: Beowulf and Finn are currently booked for community events this semester, however students are invited to attend Fun Finn Friday on May 3, 2-3 p.m. at the Cox Hall Computing Center.
By Kimber Williams • photo/video by Ann Watson and Emory Photo Video • design by Stanis Kodman