Therapy dog brings comfort and healing to Appalachian students

A year ago, Appalachian State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services Center added a new member to its team, a 4-year-old German shepherd named Ridley.

Ridley is a certified therapy dog and is used for individual therapy, group therapy, couple’s therapy, morale building, and preventative outreach programs in the residence halls.

According to Sheri Clark, Ph.D., a psychologist at the center and Ridley’s owner, therapy dogs can benefit individuals by increasing socialization, providing them with physiological responses, such as decreased heart rate, and providing homesick individuals an animal that they can pet, which reduces anxiety and stress.

“One unexpected benefit is that the dogs are so funny that people laugh,” said Clark. “They provide comic relief for the students. They are able to have that kind of intimate reaction to them.”

Clark and Ridley went through obedience training to get certified with Therapy Dogs International. The volunteer organization is dedicated to regulating, testing and registering  therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, other institutions and wherever else therapy dogs are needed. Dogs suitable for certification must accept a friendly stranger, sit politely for petting, be well groomed, politely walk on a leash, sit, stay and come when called.

The Counseling and Psychological Services Center provides many services to students. The top reasons people seek help are anxiety, depression, relationship problems and stress. During the 2011-12 academic year, 1,620 students accessed the counseling center’s services, which is about 10 percent of the Boone-based student population.

“It is a very helpful resource,” Clark said about the center. “It often makes students perform better in class if they talk out loud about the issues they’re facing.”  

Ridley will be at the center two days a week during the fall and spring semesters. There is a sign posted at the front desk when she is present. 

Previous dogs who have worked with the center are Scout, a Shiloh shepherd owned by Carol O’Saben who left in the spring to assume the counseling center director position at Northern Arizona University, and Bella Luna, a pit bull owned by Amber Lyda who left the first of July to assume a counseling center associate director position at Florida Atlantic University.