Pet Project
TAGS: Faculty & Staff

Woody Lash, Pet Therapy DogWhen Woody Lash arrives on the American International College campus, the visiting therapist makes his way to his small office at 1020 State Street, which he shares with a coworker. According to his officemate, Candy, Woody carries himself as you might expect of someone in his profession: neat, considerate, and quiet— mostly. “Really, the only time he disrupts me is when he snores,” she admitted.

Snores? Should someone notify HR.

Not exactly. Here’s a key detail to know about Woody: he’s a dog. And a therapist. For the past few semesters, the golden retriever mix has visited the AIC campus during exam time as a licensed pet therapy dog, bringing with him joy and calm, just as he was trained to do, without once requesting a copay. (Treats notwithstanding.)

In recent decades, dogs have significantly augmented our workforce and proven to be more than just a pal who loves catch. When properly trained, working dogs have shown tremendous aptitude for diabetes monitoring, cancer detection, cadaver recovery, and as therapy dogs for stress, anxiety, PTSD, and a host of other emotional challenges. To meet Woody, it is no mystery why he is well-suited for his assigned profession—and that AIC is just a little better for it.

He Won’t Eat Your Homework

(But He Might Help You Do It)

Woody and his handler, AIC Senior Public Relations Specialist Candy Lash, share their campus offices with the College’s Supportive Learning Services (SLS) program. This one-on-one tutoring program allows students to receive extra academic support—and, as for many students, the stress of test taking can become all consuming. Recently, Marianne Merritt, assistant director of SLS, worked with a student in the program who was struggling to overcome a crippling bout of anxiety and finish his final exam. happy student rubbing therapy dogAfter making little headway, Merritt made an unconventional move: she called Lash and asked if Woody could come over for a brief visit.

“The student had reached a point of anxiety where fight or flight kicked in and his critical thinking skills were just frozen,” recalled Merritt. “In comes, Woody wagging his tail, and it changed the student’s focus for a few minutes. Just enough so that he could go back to his test and be productive,” recalled Merritt. Having watched Woody at work, she reflected on what transpired between the student and his would-be pet therapist. “The dog comes in without judgment. He doesn’t know what stresses you’re experiencing and doesn’t care what you do or don’t know—and that really gives students a sense of calm. It helps them reset.”

“He doesn’t know what stresses you’re experiencing and doesn’t care what you do or don’t know—and that really gives students a sense of calm. It helps them reset.”

That pets can provide a moment of welcomed distraction and calm may be an easy sell to animal lovers, but the emotional impact of dogs goes well beyond anecdotal evidence. According to the National Center for Health Research, even temporary contact with a pet can result in reduced pain and anxiety in hospitalized children and adults, as well as increased focus and socialization for children with autism or other developmental disorders. For many years, hospitals, libraries, funeral homes, and nursing homes have employed skilled pet therapy dogs to provide comfort and stress-relief during challenging times.

More recently, colleges and universities have been added to the list of institutions making pet therapy dogs available to their students, including Harvard, Yale, and Auburn University. Woody follows proudly in this tradition at AIC. “College can be stressful, especially during mid-terms and finals,” said Lash. “So when I came to work at AIC in 2014, I thought this would be a great place for me to share him with students.” Judging by the amount of appearance requests Woody fields when he’s on campus, Lash was onto something meaningful. But his journey to AIC started well before his first walk around the Quad. First, he had to graduate from a school of his own.

The College-Bound Hound

Woody Lash sitting adorablyBefore becoming a life-saver to students managing test anxiety, it was Woody who needed saving. Born among thousands of unwanted “Dixie Dogs” in southern states, he spent his early years running loose as a stray in Texas and eventually landed in a high-kill shelter, a common last stop in areas of the country without aggressive spay and neutering programs. For Woody, his deus ex machina came in the form of a dog rescue program that swept him out of his kennel and into foster care. Within weeks, he was put on a transport headed to the northeast, and into Candy Lash’s life.

At the time, Lash handled media relations for the local humane society, featuring pets in need of a home on television and radio. Woody wasn’t quite ready for prime-time, being a new arrival with an inconclusive heartworm test, but Lash brought him along anyway for a preview on the local talk show, Mass Appeal. Within hours, she had a potential adopter on her hands, won over by Woody’s charm—namely, herself.

A lifelong dog owner, Lash knows a great dog when she sees one. And shortly after bringing Woody into her home and her life, she realized that this particular mutt had gifts to share. “He’s so gentle, so easy to train and eager to please. I thought, he deserves to be shared, so we went for training,” she said. The two began training courses that ultimately led them to a four-week course for pet therapy certification, allowing Woody to bring stress relief to populations where stress or anxiety are common. To pass the course, Woody had to demonstrate that he could remain calm in a variety of circumstances, including in the presence of walkers, wheelchairs, and young children. In short, Woody needed to be nearly unflappable, and he passed with flying colors.

“He’s so gentle, so easy to train and eager to please. I thought, he deserves to be shared…”

In 2014, Lash began working in the marketing department at American International College, where she started reflecting on the challenges students face during test time. Two semesters ago, Woody made his debut during finals week, making the rounds on the Quad with Lash and sporting his official pet therapy vest. As passing students’ faces lit up, Lash encouraged them to take a two-minute break and say hello to Woody. Needless to say, the college-bound hound had a fan base in no time. Last semester, he responded to an invite from several groups of health science students, who requested a pet therapy visit during their independent C-block—just a brief break from the study grind.

For those who need a little extra pup time, Lash makes her office available for drop-ins. “On a bad day, it’s really nice to stop in and see Woody,” said nursing student Dante Raggio ’18. “The dog doesn’t judge and is always happy to see you. Interacting with him lets me step out of my bubble for a minute, and get a reminder that life is more than just the exam I have tomorrow. And then you go back to it.

By any definition, that is simply good therapy.

 

-By Scott Whitney

Photography by Seth Kaye