Inside the Key Roles Therapy Dogs Play on and off Campus

Three dogs side-by-side posing for the camera.
Therapy dogs (L-R) Toshi, Gracie, and Tomo pose for their studio portrait.

Throughout the academic year, therapy dogs provide mental health intervention, crisis response and more.

When Holy Cross Police Officer Michael Salerno responds to a call for a student in crisis, he often has his partner, Gracie, a 4-year-old Goldendoodle, in tow. “They might have just experienced the worst moment in their life. Gracie’s able to provide a safe space to feel a little more comfortable. They’re no longer talking to me, they’re talking to Gracie,” he said.

For several years, therapy dogs have been increasingly common sights on college campuses across the U.S., working to relax students during finals week, provide a quiet setting to connect with a canine friend, and even remember the connection with a beloved pet at home. In addition, they can also provide increased awareness of campus mental health services.

“Students experience a variety of challenges on campus; increasing demands and navigating an increasingly complex world can be overwhelming. The dogs enable them to make a connection and can act as a way to provide more services if needed,” said Gabrielle Clark, associate director of the Office of Student Accessibility Services, which also sponsors weekly visits from local therapy dogs Tomo, a 3-year-old American Akita, and Toshi, a 1-year-old Japanese Akita.

Tomo, an American Akita dog
Therapy Dog Tomo, a 3-year-old American Akita

“Therapy dogs give students something furry to love on to make them smile and feel better on what could be a difficult day,” said Kim O’Neil, president and director of Animal Assisted Therapy Services, and Tomo’s and Toshi’s owner and handler.

Animal Assisted Therapy Services' Kim O’Neil on the meaning behind Tomo and Toshi's names
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During the lunchtime rush twice a week, Tomo sits on the busy first floor of Hogan 1, between the Bookstore and Cool Beans, greeting members of the Holy Cross community as they walk up the steps from the ground floor. For students who want a quieter, longer visit, O’Neil arranges private space for students to spend 15 minutes with the dogs.

“Some days they’re missing their pets at home. Other times there is something more troubling them and they need a little more time with the dogs to have a calm moment or ground themselves,” O’Neil said.

Canine Companions

While Tomo and Toshi visit campus weekly, Gracie is a permanent member of the Department of Public Safety. She arrived on campus as a 4-month-old puppy in 2019 for the express purpose of working with officers and providing comfort to students. Over the course of a year, Gracie and Salerno completed several training certification courses, including the AKC’s good citizen canine course and a special credentialed therapy dog team program designed by O’Neil based on the AKC’s public access test, canine good citizen advanced and canine good citizen urban courses.

A typical work day for Gracie, who lives with Salerno and his family, begins with a commute to campus and a start at Public Safety before grabbing a snack and some exercise at the Joanne Chouinard-Luth Recreation and Wellness Center. From there, she takes a break while Salerno completes office work before going out on patrol, which can include visits to some of her favorite places, including the Office of Student Involvement, Cool Beans and other areas popular with students.

“I like to have her moving around campus, when we can,” Salerno said.

Therapy Dogs and Mental Health

Research cited in the journal Science indicates that the connection between humans and dogs is deeply rooted and can create an emotional bond as strong as that between a mother and infant. Recent research on campus-based therapy dogs says there is growing evidence that students experience less psychological and physiological stress during high stress and anxious moments when having access to a therapy dog.

Toshi, a Japanese Akita dog
Therapy Dog Toshi, a 1-year-old Japanese Akita

According to the American Kennel Club, a therapy dog is trained to be consistent in inconsistent environments and, unlike service dogs, to interact with a variety of people instead of solely their handler. They volunteer in hospitals, nursing homes, workplaces and schools, with a primary goal of providing comfort, affection and stress relief.

Kim O'Neil on why she chose Akitas for therapy dogs and also why they aren't the breed for everyone.
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“Therapy dogs are another tool in the tool box. When a dog walks in, most of the time the light comes back in the person and they breathe a little easier. The dogs are a bridge to any other resources someone needs,” O’Neil said.

Outside of their work at Holy Cross, Gracie and Tomo also lend their skills to assist people and communities.

O’Neil, who works per diem with the Worcester Police Department as a 911 dispatcher, is part of a national K9 crisis response team. Her dogs visit prisons to work with inmates. Tomo supports people in recovery and comforts hospice clients. Tomo’s most recent out-of-state assignment had him providing comfort to grieving residents in Lewiston, Maine, during a community vigil after an October 2023 mass shooting.

“Doing this work is near and dear to my heart,” O’Neil said.

Gracie also partners with other police departments in the city and communities around the College.

“We can see people at some of the most traumatic times in their lives. They are closed off and don’t want to talk about it in the moment. I’ll ask them if they like dogs and if they say yes, I’ll bring Gracie in,” Salerno said. “When they see her there is a shift. They don’t focus on me or where they are. They’re talking to Gracie and letting their emotions go as we work through the process to determine what resources they need and how to proceed.”

While their work is serious, it’s not always emotionally and mentally heavy. Twice a week Gracie visits with elementary school students in Auburn who are working on reading comprehension and communication skills. In another area school district, Gracie visits with special needs students to provide a calming presence. She is a regular at community engagement events in Worcester, from the animal cruiser parade to Why Me, Sherry’s House – a home for families with children in active treatment for cancer — to collecting toys from the city giving tree to benefit Worcester Public School children.

“She’s my partner and part of my family. The way people actively engage with me because I have Gracie with me is one of the main reasons I got into law enforcement,” he said.