College and University Libraries Division

Texas Library Association

“Paws for Finals” at University of Texas at Arlington Library

Jody Bailey, Reference/Instruction Librarian at UT Arlington, discusses the Paws for Finals program where registered therapy dogs were invited to the Library “as a way to help students relieve the stress of studying for final exams.”

As an outreach and student support program, not much can beat the opportunity to interact with sweet, friendly dogs for drawing in the crowds. Our therapy-dog program at UT Arlington Library, “Paws for Finals,” has been no exception. This program was first conceived of and proposed early in the fall semester of 2012 as a way to help students relieve the stress of studying for final exams, writing papers, and preparing other end-of-semester projects.

After having the project green-lighted by Library administration, early planning included finding a therapy-dog group that would be willing to volunteer in our Library. I contacted several DFW-area groups I found online but had received no replies after a few weeks, so I called my personal veterinarian and she recommended Abby Wilson of Paws with Partners, a volunteer therapy-dog group out of Mansfield, TX, that is affiliated with a national group, Pet Partners. After meeting with Abby and her canine partner Duke and establishing that the Paws with Partners dogs and handlers are all registered therapy teams with liability insurance from the national group, a call for volunteers went out to the UT Arlington Library staff members, and we quickly had a group of 20 dog lovers ready to help staff the program. Abby and another Paws with Partners member, Steve Burn, worked with me to set up a schedule for the teams to be in the Library. We based the schedule on the days and times that the Library was busiest: the week before final exams to halfway through the exam period, 10 a.m.–noon and 2–4 p.m.; thus the final schedule for fall 2012 was December 1–9 and for spring 2013, April 29–May 8. Paws with Partners is a small but growing group, so Steve had to work hard on their end to ensure that we had at least two therapy teams to cover each two-hour shift. On the Library side, I asked our volunteer group to perform one of two functions in the fall for each shift: minder and greeter; in the spring, one more person was added for each shift: crowd control. I used a free online service to manage Library volunteer sign-ups, Volunteer Spot, which greatly simplified the volunteer-organizing process. Following are the most recent descriptions of each type of Library volunteer duty:

  • Crowd Control: You will be stationed in the northeast corner of the 2nd floor. You will be responsible for counting the people going in to visit the dogs and for controlling the number of people interacting with the dogs. If the space becomes too crowded, please ask patrons to form a line and keep them moving through (allow each student 10 minutes or so of interaction if it gets really crowded). Please also ask each student to fill out a comment card when they leave.
  • Minder: You will be stationed at the northeast corner of the 2nd floor. Your job will be to manage the space, ensuring that the therapy teams have everything they need. This might include bringing water for the dogs or people or holding the leash of one of the dogs if the handler needs a bathroom break. Your job will also be to take photos during your shift and ensure that you get a signed UTA Photographic Consent and Release Form for each student in the photos. You will also be responsible for helping the therapy teams make sure that their Pet Partner photo consent forms are signed. Copies of both forms will be on hand. Important! Be sure to write a short description of the student on their release form so that we can later identify them in the photos. You can describe their shirt, hair color, hat, and/or anything else that’s distinctive. [Note: the forms are required by our university as well as by Pet Partners if we want to post the photos on our social media or use them for marketing future events.]
  • Greeter: You will be stationed in the Central Library Lobby. Your job will be to hand out bookmarks to people entering the Library, to tell them about our event, to assure them that the dogs are friendly (registered therapy dogs), and to direct them to the northeast corner of the 2nd floor if they want to interact with the dogs. Example: “Hi! Paws for Finals is going on right now. There are some super friendly dogs on the second floor if you want to go and visit with them!” Fill in details if people ask questions.

From the beginning, an important part of advertising the program was including attractive portraits of the participating dogs on the marketing materials, and most of the dog handlers were able to provide me with those. The following items were used for marketing:Tarek

  • Printed flyers and posters throughout the Library and around campus
  • The Library “Installments” monthly newsletter that’s posted in Library bathroom stalls
  • Campus e-newsletters that go to all faculty, staff, and students
  • Digital signs that cycle through several messages in all library locations
  • The Library’s Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest accounts

Our campus newspaper, The Shorthorn, ran a story about the event in both semesters (fall, spring), and the DFW-NBC affiliate also covered it on the local newscast at the end of the spring program. For each semester, I made a LibGuide site for the event with a detailed schedule of which dogs would be onsite, information about the physical and psychological benefits of interacting with friendly dog, a copy of our poster, and a page for each therapy team with biographical blurbs about the dogs and several photographs of them and their handlers (fall 2012 site, spring 2013 site).

While the dogs were in the Library, they were stationed in a specific location to ensure that they were not bothering patrons in our Library who did not want to interact with them. Because the dogs would be a popular attraction, we wanted to be sure that they were in a location that was relatively spacious with lots of room for visitors to sit on the floor next to the animals. It was also important, however, that the location be somewhat enclosed, so we chose a computer-free corner area with empty shelving on one side. Stanchions were placed at the open end to control the entrance to the area. We placed movable upholstered chairs in the area and made sure that hand-sanitizing liquid pumps and wipes as well as lint rollers were available at the exit, next to the comment cards that we asked visitors to complete.

Our total number of therapy-dog visitors in spring 2013 was 2,116, up from 1,888 in the fall 2012 semester. Here’s how the numbers break down per shift:

  • Total fall 2012 shifts = 18, an average of 105 visitors/shift
  • Total spring 2013 shifts = 19, an average of 111 visitors/shift

LukeThe comment cards asked the following questions: “This event is (a) Fabulous! I love the dogs!; (b) Pretty good; (c) Meh, I don’t really care about dogs; (d) Annoying. How could we improve this event next time? What other stress-relief events would you like? Other comments?” In the fall, the response rate for (a) was 96.26% and (b) was 3.55%; in the spring, (a) was 95.27% and (b) was 4.3%.

Questions to keep in mind if you’d like to start a stress-relief therapy-dog program on your campus:

  1. Does my university/college allow therapy animals on campus? Bear in mind that therapy animals are not service animals. (When I proposed this program, I first went to my supervisor who approved it, and she took it to our Library dean, Rebecca Bichel, who also approved it. Dean Bichel chose not to ask permission further up the line.)
  2. Is there a therapy dog group in my area willing to volunteer in my library? If so, how many days and/or hours can they give to the program? Do they carry liability insurance that covers every dog in their group? (Paws with Partners has been incredibly generous with their time; some members worked almost every day.)
  3. Where in my library can I house the program? Is there a space with enough room for at least two large dogs and 10–15 people? Is this space in an area that’s already busy and noisy? Are the patrons in this area likely to be amused or annoyed by a dog barking occasionally? (You can ask your therapy dogs’ handlers to keep them quiet, but visitors enjoy tricks, and some dogs will “speak” on command.)
  4. Does my library have enough staff members who are willing and who have the time to volunteer to help organize and staff the program? (If you have a suitable space close to your main entrance, you will not need the greeter volunteer. If your space is similar to ours, the greeter is imperative to the success of the program. Even though we had numerous signs and an eye-catching display at the entrance, most people paid no attention to them. For the few shifts when we had no greeter available, the numbers of visitors dropped noticeably.)

A therapy-dog program is not difficult to set up; it simply takes a great deal of attention to detail so that it’s well organized and runs smoothly. Another advantage is that it costs almost nothing except the time of the organizer(s) and staff volunteers and the paper and ink to print promotional materials. Pet Partner therapy-dog teams are strictly volunteers and expect no payment for their time (in fact, the national organization prohibits remuneration). In our case, the program has brought only positive attention to the Library and singled us out as being a friendly, welcoming place that cares about the well-being of our students, staff, and faculty members. The program has also been noticed at the highest levels of university administration, with the dean of the College of Liberal Arts taking the time to send our Library dean a note in which she called the program “creative and warm-hearted.” The biggest payoff, however, is the smiles and laughter of those who visit with the dogs and their handlers. Facilitating such happiness among our campus population has brought enormous satisfaction to both Library employees and Paws with Partners therapy-dog teams. If you have any questions about setting up a program similar to this one in your library, please feel free to contact me at jbailey@uta.edu.

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This entry was posted on May 28, 2013 by in Outreach.
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