Canine comfort for "ruff" times

For students who don’t feel that the hundreds of on-campus squirrels are a suitable substitute for their pets at home, there’s a better option - Sophie the therapy dog.

Sophie is an American Kennel Club registered therapy dog who comes to Lauderdale Health Center every Tuesday with her owner and trainer, Alcohol and Other Drugs program coordinator Sarah Covell.

Sophie, a smooth fox terrier, weighs only 18 pounds and stands 15 inches high. She has completed her Therapy Dog International and American Kennel Club Good Citizen tests, and according to Covell, “is excited to see students … she loves college students, she knows when it’s her day to come to work.”

Sophie began visiting with Geneseo students last spring when Covell said she got permission to bring her dog to work because “research shows that petting an animal can actually lower your heart rate, your blood pressure and the amount of stress hormones in your body.”

While Covell herself generally works with students struggling with alcohol or other drugs, she said that she believes that therapy dogs can be helpful for a number of reasons including general anxiety, depression and helping new students assimilate to college life without their pets.

“We thought that therapy dogs would be most beneficial for first year students who were leaving their pets,” Covell said. “I think a lot of students really miss the closeness they have with their own pets at home, and while Sophie certainly can’t replace that beloved pet, they get that unconditional love, that unconditional acceptance. Sophie loves everybody.”

According to Covell, during appointments, Sophie sits on the yellow loveseat in Covell’s office next to the student and allows them to pet her.

“She’s just a calming presence,” Covell said.

Appointments are generally an hour long, allowing students to speak with Covell about their personal stresses and college life.

Covell said that in order to become a TDI certified dog, Sophie had to participate in an eight-week training program and pass 13 tests. These included leaving food or treats alone at the handler’s command, reacting positively to children and meeting other dogs. She said that to be considered, a dog must have a sweet, calm and outgoing disposition and display perfect obedience to their handler for both the dog and the patient’s safety.

“Sophie loves everyone, no matter what clothes you wear or how you talk, but she’ll love you more if you have cookies,” Covell joked.

To arrange an appointment with Sophie, email Covell at covell@geneseo.edu.