Three therapy dogs from Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services (KPETS) visit students at the McDaniel College Wellness Center. (Lauren Loricchio/Carroll County Times)
Ryan Wheeler was sitting in the Kriel Lounge at McDaniel College between classes Tuesday afternoon with a friend when they were approached by three dogs — Willy, Molly and Fleuri.
"They came to us, and we both love dogs, so we loved it," said Wheeler, 17, a freshman. "I got assigned two papers yesterday and today, so seeing these dogs — they just jump on you and it's really nice; it's really calming."
Molly, an 8-year-old border collie, sprawled out on the ground, reveling in the affection of students who stopped to admire and pet her.
"It's really a lot of fun, and she likes the kids," said Molly's owner, Claudia Vrable, a Westminster resident and McDaniel alumna.
The therapy dogs, brought to the college by Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services, or KPETS, have been visiting McDaniel's campus for about three years, according to Erin MacDougall, a staff psychologist and outreach coordinator for the college's Wellness Center.
"There is a lot of research on the therapeutic benefits of animals, with petting and stress relief — that research is well established and we have been aware of it, and really incorporated it into our work throughout the years, and this is just a great extension of that," MacDougall said. "Students often feel stressed about lots of things in life — their schoolwork, friendships and extracurriculars — and this allows them to take a break from that and to relieve the stress."
Therapy dogs visit the campus during student orientation and in first-year residence halls during the first month of school, and also have regularly scheduled visits throughout the year, MacDougall said.
"As we start the school year, [we have] the therapy dogs here to help them cope with homesickness, generally adjust to help them with living and studying here," MacDougall said, as students petted and played with the animals.
Freshman Emily Wixted, 18, stopped to spend some time with the dogs on Tuesday. Even though she's only 20 minutes from her home in Sykesville, it has taken her some time to adjust to daily life away from her family, she said.
"I love dogs and I miss my dog at home," Wixted said, smiling at Molly.
Dogs at KPETS go through an orientation and training with their owners before traveling to visit seniors at nursing homes, children at libraries, and other organizations by request, said Sally Hoke, a KPETS volunteer and owner of Willy, a calm springer spaniel mix.
"Over a couple years that we had him, we had company and people would just go right up to him; he was a friendly dog," Hoke said. "He just demonstrated that he liked people — and I like people."
Hoke said she learned about KPETS through a friend who was a volunteer.
"The first year he was pretty new at it and he was little hyper. We could only stay like half an hour … it's funny how they get tired with all the attention and being out and running around; he goes home and sleeps for about half an hour," Hoke said.
MacDougall said the therapy dog program provided by KPETS has really grown on McDaniel's campus since it first began but their presence on campus throughout the year has increased at the request of students.
"Some students really do put it in their calendar at the beginning of the school year and so they always kind of make a point of coming, especially if they have a favorite dog," MacDougall said. "I think that that is really neat to see, the way that students have responded and the way that this program has grown."