Floppy black ears bouncing in the sunlight, Scooter trots down a busy sidewalk at Butler University. Students pass by, winding down from the chaos that comes with the first full week of classes. Scooter looks up at them from the end of his Butler-themed leash, giving that look that only dogs can give.
And for student after student, just seeing Scooter brings instant joy. Their faces transform as they smile back. While some walk away grinning after just a quick pet, others stop in their tracks for the chance to rub Scooter’s belly or feed him a treat from the bag Shana Markle carries with her on their afternoon walk through campus.
Scooter, a one-year-old Cavachon, joined the Butler University Counseling Center as a therapy dog in August 2019. He’s cared for by Markle, the Center’s Associate Director. Markle says it’s not rare for universities to offer this service, but it isn’t common, either, and the counseling staff at Butler wanted to stay ahead of the game when it comes to supporting student health.
“We talk a lot about being innovative and just trying to provide the students with the best experience we can,” Markle says. “For us, it’s an opportunity to provide a better experience for them, and also to remove barriers and be more accessible. There’s still a stigma related to coming to counseling, and this makes it a little easier for people to come in who might not otherwise.”
With depression and anxiety on the rise among teens and young adults, many university counseling centers have a hard time keeping up with the demand for care. Average counseling center usage increased by up to 40 percent between 2009 and 2015, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, while school enrollment only rose by 5 percent.
While adding Scooter to the mix won’t magically solve these issues at Butler, it does make the Center more well-rounded by introducing a new approach when it comes to this very real challenge of how best to care for mental health, Markle says. For students who don’t need clinical care, just petting a dog can be enough to reduce stress. And within regular counseling sessions, having a dog around will allow Markle to implement new forms of therapy for students with more serious illnesses.
Animal-assisted therapy goes deeper than just having a furry thing to pet. Interacting with dogs in a clinical setting can provide relief to students who’ve struggled with leaving pets behind at home, or who are going through trauma and other diagnosable mental issues.
According to Pet Partners, a national nonprofit organization that trains and registers therapy animals and their handlers, humans and animals can bond in beneficial ways. Research shows that therapy dogs can help relieve pain, improve mood, encourage more social behavior, and lower blood pressure. Plus, by stimulating the release of endorphins, dogs usually just make people feel happy.
Plans to bring a therapy dog to Butler began taking shape during the 2017-18 academic year, when one of the Counseling Center’s doctoral fellows brought her expertise in animal-assisted therapy to campus. Student Affairs leaders at the University carefully studied the benefits and potential risks of such a program, considering what has worked best on other campuses in order to shape policies for animal-assisted therapy at Butler. Soon enough, it was time to pick a puppy and decide who would take the dog home each night.
Of the three full-time staff members, Markle was in the best position to take on a new pet. She says it took as much effort to convince her husband as it did to convince her colleagues, but after some time—and some begging from their teenage son—the couple decided to take a chance. On Labor Day 2018, they brought an eight-week-old Scooter home.
Over the next year, there was a lot of paperwork for Markle and training for Scooter. A therapy dog’s role goes deeper than that of an emotional-support dog—the use is more intentional and clinical, which meant Scooter needed to be certified with a pet therapy organization.
Scooter started taking obedience courses at just 12 weeks old, one of the youngest students in his classes. Despite having the extra playfulness of a puppy, Markle says he did a great job. He was trained and tested in a range of skills, from following basic commands like sit and stay to remaining calm in a crowd of strangers, before becoming registered with the American Kennel Club as both a “S.T.A.R. Puppy” and a “Canine Good Citizen.” He also passed an evaluation for dogs who demonstrate advanced skills in urban settings. After a little more practice interacting with other dogs, Scooter will likely become certified by Pet Partners, one of the most well-known and respected national pet therapy organizations.
But all the effort was worth it, Markle says, because when students interact with Scooter, she can see their stress melt away.
During therapy sessions, it can be therapeutic for patients to breathe along with Scooter, or hold onto him to stay mentally grounded while discussing traumatic experiences. Students know Scooter will never judge what they say.
“Human connection is very important to our well-being, but relationships can also be a source of stress,” Markle says. “Even healthy relationships require effort to maintain and can be quite challenging.”
With a dog, the relationship will be genuine, accepting, and unconditional.
Students can play with Scooter or brush his curly black-and-white fur. They can try to teach him a new skill or just let him curl up at their feet. Or, for students who would rather not interact with a dog, he doesn’t need to be in the room. The animal-assisted therapy service will be carefully tailored to each student’s needs.
“To me, Scooter represents more than the day-to-day assistance he’ll be able to provide,” says Scott Peden, Executive Director of Student Health & Recreation. “It’s kind of a representation of our efforts to meet the students where they are and address whatever barriers they face when seeking out our services.”
Peden says Scooter has already had an unexpected impact on the Counseling Center staff. After a tough session, therapists can relax by rubbing Scooter’s ears or taking him outside for a walk.
“Therapists need therapists, because what they do is really a tough job,” Peden says. “So it’s nice to have Scooter in-house to be a support mechanism.”
But animal-assisted therapy isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Markle and the other counselors are more than happy to make any accommodations necessary. Scooter is hypoallergenic and doesn’t shed, but there will still be some campus offices he never visits. A sign on the Counseling Center’s door also informs guests how to ask that Scooter be put away before they enter.
“It’s so important for us, as a Center, to be a support for everyone on campus,” Markle says. “We’re there for everyone. We would not want the presence of a therapy dog to be a barrier for others.”
The animal-assisted therapy program fits into Butler’s emphasis on mind and body wellness, one of the eight dimensions included under the BUBeWell student experience model that was introduced last year. This initiative aims to help students grow and learn, both inside and outside of the classroom.
“Right now in higher education,” says Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Ross, “there’s a significant movement looking at student wellbeing as the foundation for student success. We’ve taken that framework to heart here by creating BUBeWell. It’s comprised of eight dimensions that we feel are important holistically for student development.”
Within the mind and body dimension, the Counseling Center will be expanding outreach in a variety of ways throughout the next year. Scooter is just one part of that. Staff members are also introducing a series called Let’s Talk, providing opportunities for groups of students to gather and share whatever is on their minds. Counseling staff will be visiting the Efroymson Diversity Center, too, hosting sessions that address topics specific to students of color.
Ultimately, the goal is to make resources for maintaining mental wellbeing more accessible to students. That often means getting out of the Counseling Center and meeting students where they’re at, whether that’s in another campus office or right by the sidewalk on a sunny afternoon.
Olivia Jacobs, a Community Assistant in her junior year at Butler, first met Scooter during a training about how to help fellow students find the best on-campus mental health resources.
“Having Scooter here shows me that Butler’s Counseling and Consultation Services is innovating,” Jacobs says. “It’s so exciting that they are looking at different routes for making student mental health a priority. And by the intentional ways they are implementing Scooter, it also shows me that they are still accommodating to everyone. I would just encourage people—if they see Scooter around campus—to go up and say hi, and to go pet him, because it’s his job to be a support.”
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