Texas Library Association
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:
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:
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:
The 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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.