Drexel Becomes First University to Host a Permanent Therapy Dog in a Recreation Center

Jersey, an adopted Carolina blend, is a certified therapy dog with his own official Drexel University identification card.

Thanks to its newest employee, Drexel University has become the first university in the country whose recreation center hosts an on-site therapy dog year-round. Drexel is also the first college in the Greater Philadelphia area to retain a therapy dog on campus.

Jersey, an adopted Carolina blend and a certified therapy dog, is now available to play with students for the 2014-2015 academic year. He will be available about two days a week for a few hours in a free room or in the office of his owner and sponsor, Kathryn Formica, coordinator of student fitness and wellness in the Drexel Recreation Center. Already, Jersey can easily be seen through the glass door or glass façade of her office on the third floor of the recreation center. 

Pet therapy and the use of therapy dogs have been common in nursing homes and hospitals, but lately more college campuses are using therapy dogs as well. Studies have shown that playing with a therapy dog can reduce blood pressure and lower anxiety and depression in college students.

Many colleges, including Drexel, have hosted therapy dogs on campus for single-day occasions to ease the stress during finals week. During last year’s “Puppy Pawlooza” events held at Drexel at the end of every term, about 500 to 800 students would show up to play with a handful of therapy dogs, even with minimal advertising and publicity to announce the event.

However, only a few colleges, including Harvard University and Yale University, regularly house therapy dogs. Those colleges with permanent therapy dogs have reported that the dogs are a huge hit with students, even though the pets are only available for certain students with access to certain university buildings. Harvard Medical School’s library has a Shih Tzu named Cooper who’s been available for students since he was brought to the campus in 2012. Yale University’s Lillian Goldman Law Library introduced a small brown cross-breed terrier called Monty in 2011.

Formica thought it would be a great idea to have a therapy dog at Drexel, but one that would be more accessible to all students throughout the academic year. She also thought that the recreation center, rather than a library, would be the perfect setting.

“I wanted to approach it from a different angle,” she said. “I wanted to show that you can come here and relieve stress by exercising or petting a dog, and it doesn’t need to be something that’s always associated with an already high-stress environment. You don’t need to wait until you’re stressed; you can come in and constantly work on managing stress.”

Formica started researching schools with permanent on-site therapy dogs that come in on a regular basis, and even called Harvard and Yale to investigate further. Once she learned the dogs were owned by the library staff members, she realized that she could finally achieve her own dream of being a dog-owner.

“I always wanted one but I never could with my hours at work. I pitched this idea thinking no one would really grasp on and they’d think that I was crazy,” she said.

Instead, the opposite happened. Formica gained approval from the recreation center and Drexel athletics, and also worked with Drexel’s Risk Management department to create the therapy dog program.

After gaining approval, she worked with the Delaware County SPCA and later adopted Jersey. He went through two months of dog training and passed certification tests with Therapy Dogs International and Canine Good Citizen a few weeks ago.

In his first few weeks at Drexel, Jersey has already made new friends at events during Welcome Back Week, including his own meet-and-greet. He will also attend sports events on campus, and he’ll be easy to spot.

“We’re ordering him bandanas with the dragon head that say ‘Please pet me, I’m working,’ Formica said. “He does have a Drexel tank top but it’s a little big on him,”. 

Jersey won’t be getting an athletics jersey, though that’s what Formica has taken to citing as inspiration for his name, which was his before he was adopted.

“I think it’s a good fit. We’re saying that’s what he’s named for because people think it’s the state and he gets a lot of slack for ‘Jersey,’” she said.

Formica is responsible for bringing Jersey to campus, in more ways than one. She’s the legal owner and certified handler of Jersey, so she has a commuting buddy she brings to and from work in her car. Jersey only started two weeks ago, but Formica says he already gets excited and runs to the door when she says it’s time for work.

“We try, for his sake, to only have him engage with students for a few hours at a time, but we’re going to need to accommodate the mass need,” she said. “There are so many students that want to see him and you can’t really pick and choose which ones get to see him.”

Students who want to take a break and relax with Jersey will be able to find the best times to visit by using social media for updates on free time. Jersey’s own Facebook page and the Recreation Center’s Facebook and Twitter pages will provide the days and times of Jersey’s scheduled meet-and-greets with students.