Universities across the country are learning how the dogs in the Oklahoma State University Pete’s Pet Posse have become a student’s best friend.
“Whenever I see a dog, I always get a big grin on my face and all of my stress and worries disappear for that moment and all I think about is how happy I am to be petting the dog,” said Oklahoma State University junior Ashley Walters.
Oklahoma State University First Lady and Pete’s Pet Posse owner/handler Ann Hargis was joined by Walters and others to discuss the benefits of Oklahoma State’s program at a National Association of Student Personnel Administration (NASPA) event in San Antonio.:
Pete’s Pet Posse is the nation’s most comprehensive university-based pet therapy program and more and more universities across the country and even internationally are interested in replicating the campus pet therapy program.
“My therapy dog Scruff, a six-year-old Terrier mix, and I have seen students visibly relax as they pet the dogs and start to talk about the stresses of being a student and university life in general,” said Hargis “It’s amazing to watch students positively change and blossom after spending time with the Pete’s Pet Posse dogs. Our dogs have the incredible sense to know who needs their help in a crowd of eager students, staff and faculty.”
Walters continues, “I was very homesick in my freshman year and missed my pets greatly. Being with the Pete’s Pet Posse dogs reminds me of home and gives me the unconditional love I was missing.”
Pete’s Pet Posse serves students, staff, faculty and guests on campus. The Posse was established as a self-funded wellness program in 2013 on the main OSU Stillwater campus. The program was a collaborative effort including the President’s Office, OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, OSU Veterinary Medical Hospital, University Counseling, Human Resources and the Employee Assistance Program. The Posse has expanded to nearly 50 teams on three campuses including OSU-Tulsa and the OSU Center for Health Sciences campus in Tulsa. Discussions are also underway to bring new dog/handler teams to OSU-OKC in central Oklahoma.
“It never fails, when one of the Pete’s Pet Posse dogs enters the room the whole mood changes,” noted Elizabeth Carver-Cyr, Assistant Director of Family Graduate Student Housing. “Smiles leap on nearly every face and students scramble to get down on the floor with the dogs. The dogs seem to love the attention and immediately roll over for tummy rubs. I’ve witnessed many healing moments against the stresses of student life.”
Dog handler teams are formed from faculty and staff’s personally owned dogs. They are primarily stationed every day across the Oklahoma State University campuses the Posse serves. Many of the dogs go to work with their owner/handlers on campus and specifically serve those offices. But the entire posse goes to work across the campus for such weekly visits as Muttday Monday, Yappy Hour, and Waggin Wednesday at the Edmon Low Library. Other visits are regularly conducted at the ReBoot Center, Residence Halls and other events across campus to offer support and smiles to those they meet. Pete’s Pet Posse teams are also invited to New Student Orientations where both new students and their parents interact with the dogs during the stressful transition from home to college. Many students have reported that the visits with the Posse were one of the deciding factors in their choosing OSU.
In some cases, like Ashley Walters, Pete’s Pet Posse has been life changing. “As a freshman I was extremely shy and was not integrating into the university the way I had imagined,” Walters continued. “But as I met the dogs on campus, I gained the courage to begin getting more involved in university life. Going and visiting the dogs helped me meet people I otherwise wouldn’t have met and establish friendships I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Now I’m involved in Resident Hall leadership initiatives, athletic intramurals, OSU football game day fan clubs and the Ruff Riders Pete’s Pet Posse student auxiliary organization.”
Some Pete’s Pet Posse pet therapy teams are specialized. For example, Chico, a five-year-old Chihuahua/Pug mix, works in the Department of Wellness to help his owner/handler counsel, calm and relax clients who are undergoing nutrition and eating disorder counseling. The dogs have been used to calm crisis situations for individual students or groups, and when major incidents strike the campus such as the deadly OSU homecoming parade crash in 2015 that killed four people and injured dozens and dozens of bystanders. Pete’s Pet Posse quickly went into action helping the university community deal with their collective grief and healing over several months and years.
“I am hopeful the work we have put into this program can be used as a model for other universities,” continued First Lady Hargis. “Every day, I see the difference this program is making and we would love for other universities to embrace all that a pet therapy program has to offer.”
OSU faculty and staff are given the opportunity to apply for Pete’s Pet Posse with their own dogs each year in August. The extensive three-month application process includes an interview with the potential owner/handler and a disposition and evaluation of the dogs. The Posse advisory board considers this information plus the diversity of the dog’s breed, age, experience and department location on campus to move candidates to the next phase of acceptance – an 8–10 week training program. At the completion of training a Barkalauareate ceremony is held to award each team with their official Pete’s Pet Posse apparel and diploma.
"Oklahoma State University is branded as America's Healthiest Campus and Pete's Pet Posse is a major contributor to this well-deserved title,” noted Leon McClinton, Ph.D., OSU Director of Housing and Residential Life. “As society continues to place more demands on faculty, staff, and students, college campuses are becoming more attentive to the holistic wellness needs of its community members. As a co-presenter, it was an honor to be able to share this best practice on a national stage."
The National Association of Student Personnel Administration is the leading association for the advancement, health, and sustainability of the student affairs profession. The organizations work provides high-quality professional development, advocacy, and research for 15,000 members in all 50 states, 25 countries, and 8 U.S. territories.