When Life is Ruff
Monday, January 9, 2023
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From exams to extracurriculars, college is filled with feelings of stress and anxiety. Oklahoma State University faculty and staff members have taken the initiative to invest in their students’ mental health through the Pete’s Pet Posse program.
Ann Hargis, former OSU First Cowgirl, helped the Pete’s Pet Posse program come to life.
“A friend of mine in Oklahoma City had a standard poodle therapy dog named Rossie,” Hargis said. “I invited Rossie to campus, planned three different visits for her and found Rossie could not get from visit to visit because of all the people squealing to see a dog on campus.”
Hargis said she watched the reactions of faculty, staff and students who saw the dog and noticed how their hearts melted.
“We thought, ‘We should have Rossie here two or three times a year because this is so special,’” Hargis said. “Then we thought, ‘Why don’t we create a program ourselves?’”
Pete’s Pet Posse started in 2013 with eight dogs and has now trained more than 120 owner-handler/dog teams.
Schooled by a specialized trainer, each dog has passed the Canine Good Citizens test of the American Kennel Club as well as received certification as an Alliance of Therapy Dog by the American Therapy Dog Association. This year, 44 teams serve OSU.
“We thought we would just have dogs on campus and everybody would squeal, which of course happens,” Hargis said. “But, what we have found is there are many more serious reasons to have the dogs on campus.”
Every single day, somebody somewhere on campus — a student, staff or faculty member — is under stress, Hargis said.
“Other schools have therapy dogs during finals week because they think the time is stressful,” Hargis said. “We need dogs every day on this campus.”
Courtney Bir, an agricultural economics assistant professor, joined Pete’s Pet Posse with her dog, Minnie, with hopes to support mental health awareness on campus, she said.
“Mental health is really important to me,” Bir said. “I know graduate school and undergraduate programs are really taxing, so I wanted to support the effort of mental health awareness and the overall wellness we value here at Oklahoma State.”
Minnie and other dogs in the program participate in a variety of events throughout the year within the Ferguson College of Agriculture. Kicking off the semester, Pete’s Pet Posse hosted “Muffins with Minnie” on National Dog Day to help Ferguson College of Agriculture students destress.
Pete’s Pet Posse owner-handlers provide students, faculty and staff with resources available on campus.
“Our owner-handlers and office staff know how to look for signs of students who are struggling and know what resources we can provide those students,” said Lucy Hodges, an agricultural education master’s student and graduate assistant for Pete’s Pet Posse. “The program makes you feel like you are seen as a whole person, not just a student.”
Bir has seen the impact dogs have on students by watching Minnie because she can tell who needs her dog the most.
“If five students come up to Minnie,” Bir said, “she will say hi to each student. Then, she will take a step back and pick one student and go to him or her.”
Nine times out of 10, the student Minnie chooses will express having had a tough week and needing this moment, Bir said.
“Somehow, the dogs know who needs help,” Bir said. “I deal with data and hard science every day, but when you see this happen time and time again, there is something about the human-dog relationship this program really highlights.”
The impact therapy dogs have on students has been much higher than projected, Hodges said.
“I knew those impacts existed, but I never realized it until I worked here and saw the number of visits we do,” Hodges said. “The number of people who come to our visits and by the center just to check if we have a dog shows the campus needs a program like this.”
Imunique Gilliam, an animal science sophomore, serves as a Ruff Rider for Pete’s Pet Posse. In this role, she engages with students and ensures they are aware they can approach the dogs.
“For Mental Health Awareness Month, we were seated outside of the Student Union,” Gilliam said. “I enjoyed seeing how people’s faces lit up after they petted the dogs. It’s interesting to see how many people like dogs and how an animal can help a human relieve stress.”
Zoe Campbell, an animal science and agricultural education freshman, also serves as a Ruff Rider.
“You can see the relief on people’s faces when they are interacting with dogs and how excited they are,” Campbell said. “To be part of a program like this is really special.”
Pete’s Pet Posse has a trading card collection program with a rewards system to increase student involvement and interaction with the dogs.
Pete’s Pet Posse has outgrown its current office in the span of less than a year, Hargis said.
“My dream is to expand our horizons into other therapy animals,” Hargis said. “This is why the program is called Pete’s Pet Posse.
“The other thing that’s interesting to me is how this program is good for the dogs, good for the owner-handlers, and good for the people we visit,” Hargis added. “Everybody wins.”
You can find more information about Pete’s Pet Posse by visiting hr.okstate.edu/pet-therapy.
“We are here to support everyone at OSU,” Bir said. “We are here for you. Come say, ‘Hi!’”
Looking to support?
Pete’s Pet Posse is a self-funded program available to students, faculty and staff across campus and relies on donations to operate.
Donations to the program help offset a variety of costs, including custom dog vests, custom collars, custom leashes and the unique trading cards people have come to love. A variety of sponsorship opportunities are available to assist with program expenses.
For information about how to donate, visit osugiving.com/your-passion/pet-therapy or contact Courtney MacNelly, an associate director of development for the OSU Foundation, at firstname.lastname@example.org or call at 405-332-1469.
Story By: Drew Vogt | Cowboy Journal