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Canine Classmates: Therapy dogs help McDaniel College freshmen ease into campus life

Colleges and UniversitiesCultureAlzheimer's Disease

Dizzy, Sara and Remi don't know whether or not the new freshmen at McDaniel College are feeling a little homesick, or experiencing their first time on a campus away from family or friends.

But regardless, on Tuesday they were only too happy to cuddle with students who needed a hug in Whiteford Hall, the dorm for freshmen females, and also spent time visiting students at Kriel Lounge, a popular gathering place that includes a large cafeteria.

The trio — Sara and Remi are spaniels, and Dizzy is a Chinese crested puff — were tough to resist, with their tails wagging and their puppy dog eyes.

Many of McDaniel's newest students stopped in their tracks and spent time with the dogs. It was a moment of unconditional love that, perhaps, made being away from their families, and their pets, a little less painful.

"I hadn't been feeling too homesick, but I did feel it for the first time the other day and the dogs happened to be there at just the right moment," said Mariah Ligas, a McDaniel freshman from Aldie, Va.

"It was nice to get a little fuzz therapy."

The start of the school year begins a period of transition for millions of students. For those in kindergarten through 12th grade, it means a time of new classes and teachers, but a routine they've come to know.

That's not the case with college students. The adjustment can be particularly difficult for freshmen living on campus, who often are on their own for the first time. The feeling of homesickness can hamper an experience that's intended to be new and exciting.

"Students are coming from greater distances to go to college," said Dana Plevyak, of the Wellness Center at McDaniel College. "We now have students from Australia and Alaska, and they can't easily go home. And when you have new students on campus, they're not that familiar with the surroundings — or with one another."

At McDaniel, more than a few of the 445 members of the freshmen class are feeling homesick. But the Westminster college has figured out a way to help with the pangs of homesickness, and the solution is as simple as the old formula of kids and dogs.

The campus' Wellness Center and a regional organization known as Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services (KPETS) are partnering to bring dogs into two freshman dormitories at McDaniel. On Tuesday mornings and Thursday nights, freshmen returning to their dorm rooms are greeted in the lobby by the canine companions.

"It helps me, because I miss my dogs," said Cassie Blair, a native of Birmingham, Ala., who has two golden retrievers at home. "The dogs here give me love and remind me a little of home in a positive way."

"Many of us like to spend time with our dogs, and also like to feel that we're helping the community," said Laurie Walters of Westminster, who brings Dizzy to campus at least once a week. "I remember when I was in college, it was my first time without my dog, and I was always happy to find a stray to talk to. We thought this was a way to make the homesickness go away for these first few weeks of school. The freshmen love to visit with our dogs, and also tell us about their dogs. It gives them a little piece of home."

Remi and her owner, Peggy Faith, of Westminster, have been working with KPETS for just over a year. On Tuesday, they made their first visit to McDaniel.

"I'm just so thrilled that we can do this," said Faith, a lifelong Howard County firefighter. "A lot of these kids miss their homes and their families, and they really miss their animals."

KPETS, headquartered in Lancaster, Pa., is a network of trained and registered teams that consist of people and their pets. More than 200 volunteer teams serve facilities in 10 counties, from south central Pennsylvania to north central Maryland. The pets and owners have provided therapeutic benefits to senior citizens, hospice and hospital patients, children who are struggling to read, at-risk teens, children with autism and Alzheimer's patients.

The McDaniel Wellness Center was seeking a way to ease the homesick feelings of the school's freshmen when Susan Glore, the director of McDaniel's Wellness Center, received an email from adjunct professor Jan Knight, who had worked with KPETS. Glore then contacted the organization, and the dogs and their owners are on McDaniel's campus for the first time.

"Students are typically more homesick than they will let you know," Glore said. "They want to make friends, and don't want to come across as not being able to manage. The more things that we can get students engaged in, the better it is for them. Studies have shown that blood pressure and stress levels are lowered just by petting a dog. And what else gives you unconditional love?"

While Glore is pleased with the early results, she has plans to further develop the program.

"With our new students, the response has been better than we expected," she said. "We'll try to work in some different locations on campus, and do something before midterms and finals when we know the students are really going to be stressed."

"The (KPETS) program is drawing the students out," Plevyak said. "It gives them a chance to express if they are homesick and engage in conversation. The students love dogs, and it brings them out of their shell. There's not only interaction with the dogs, but also interaction with other students while they're with the dogs."

The therapeutic power of animals is nothing new to freshman Lexi Andrea. For her senior project at Baltimore's Park School, Andrea landed an internship with KPETS. During her six weeks with the organization, Andrea and her Australian shepherd traveled to Pennsylvania to visit autistic children, senior citizens and a juvenile detention center.

"It's interesting to be on the other side of it," said Andrea, a psychology major from Towson. "I think the dogs being here on campus have only reinforced to me how beneficial the program is. It triggers positive memories and feelings. "

Ashton Leftridge couldn't get enough of the dogs. She spent an extended time with Dizzy and Sara at Whiteford Hall, then moved on to play with Remi in the Kriel Lounge.

"This reminds me of playing with my dog, and it's very soothing to be able to relate that to my home experience," said Leftridge, a freshman from Crossroads, Pa., and the owner of a purebred boxer.

"I just love dogs," she said, "and this brings me joy."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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