College Canines!

After four years at theUniversityofPittsburghI think I can tell people what I’ll remember about this place the most when I graduate. And sure, while the great classes and wonderful faculty and staff will be on my mind, getting kisses from my furry best friends once a week will probably be my favorite memory.

See, Pitt has special guests every Tuesday night between 7 PM. and 8 PM; volunteers from the Western PA Humane Society (WPHS) bring their therapy dogs to the Cathedral of Learning, find a place to sit, and let students, professors, and people wandering in from the general public pet their lovable canines.

Some of the visiting dogs are tiny enough to fit on a student’s lap – and some do sit on students’ laps! I personally get walked on every week by a couple of poodle mixes who have decided after many visits I’m much more comfortable than the Cathedral floor.

Other dogs, though, are so massive that a student’s hand doesn’t even cover their entire head when petting them. Fortunately, these bigger dogs know better than to sit on the students.

This wonderful weekly visit is called the College Canines Program. Originally started by Marsha Robbins, a full-timePittsburghresident and an educator at the WPHS shelter who “just wanted to help the students” at Pitt, the program entered its sixth year in 2011. Through nothing but word-of-mouth the program has grown from a group of five volunteers with their dogs saying hello to about twenty students, to a full house with as many as 22 dogs a night (some owners own several). Now, several hundred students pass through the Cathedral during one visit just to see the therapy dogs that their friends insisted they check out.

It’s not unusual to hear students commenting that the therapy dogs behave and are much calmer than their own dogs at home. All the dogs at Pitt are certified through Therapy Dog International before visiting Pitt, meaning all of the owners can also volunteer at other places around the city. Libraries, hospitals, schools – any public facilities are fair game. All of the dogs are trained to ignore things that may startle other animals, making them considerably more calm and obedient than most dogs.

Believe it or not, the therapy dogs provide fantastic health benefits to people like me. Studies have shown that time spent with animals lowers people’s blood pressure and improves concentration by lowering stress levels. See why these dogs are fantastic for students? Plus, the dogs themselves begin falling asleep halfway through their visit every night because they begin to relax, too!

Robbins and her comrades have no plans of halting the visits; all of the volunteers adore coming to Pitt and talking to students about classes and current events. Plus, the act of volunteering has its own rewards and makes the dog owners as happy and relaxed as the students they aim to help.

And at the end of the night, after the owners and dogs head home, they often leave behind a Cathedral lobby littered with clumps of gold and white fur that literally dance in circles as drafts come through the building. And students like me sit at our desks, focusing on laptops while smiling and saying: “That was so cool.”

Text and photos by Larissa Gula