Therapy dogs relieve college pressures at USC

From wellness animals to mascots, dogs support campus communities.

Art of dogs wearing USC bandanas and gear
(Hyojin Park / Daily Trojan)

From the likes of George Tirebiter to Beau, dogs have graced the USC campus for decades, providing their cuddly comfort and support to the college community. But despite their ingrained relationships with students in the past, the presence of dogs on campus has fluctuated from therapy tools to mascots.

With over 10,000 followers on Instagram, @beau_usc was originally established as an online account for Beau, USC’s previous official wellness dog who became a hit among students. 

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However, in recent years, the ownership of the Instagram account has shifted to professor Rumi Tirebiter, USC Student Health’s official mascot — which replaced the position of wellness dog.

 His beloved predecessor Beau retired from his position in 2020 and is happily living with his handler, USC’s own Amanda Vanni, the executive director of strategic partnerships in university relations. While Beau and Rumi have earned a special place in the hearts of USC students, there is currently no formal therapy dog program at USC. 

Despite the lack of permanent animal services, many students seek to fill the gap of support and emotional comfort that wellness dogs had previously bridged. 

Organizations such as the Humane Society of USC host events allowing students to spend time with dogs. Skyler Nahouray, a sophomore majoring in health promotion and disease prevention studies, established USC’s Humane Society chapter in Spring 2023. Under Nahouray’s presidency, the chapter organizes events featuring guest appearances of therapy dogs on campus.

 Reflecting on the enthusiastic response from students, Nahouray highlights the continuous support from the USC community. 

“After the first event, students have always been asking me ‘When is the next event?’ They’re always seeking,” Nahouray said.

 One such event, held at Founders Park on March 21, featured an array of therapy dogs ready-to-meet students, including those from national organizations like the Alliance of Therapy Dogs to local groups such as Love On 4 Paws. Rescue dogs from Rover’s Retreat, a certified nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering and saving canine lives, were also present.

Students have been bombarded with assignments since coming back from spring break, explained Nahouray, so it feels good when walking on campus to see joyful dogs eager to play. According to Nahouray, “[the Humane Society of USC] truly makes the campus a happier place,” and the overwhelming positivity generated by these events is a testament to their success.

 Moreover, Nahouray said his personal experience with the company of a therapy dog, whose calming presence helped ease pre-exam nerves. 

“I just took a step back and I actually just held a puppy, and it just calmed me down,” Nahouray said. “And then I was like, it is what it is, I think my studying was enough, and I went into the exam, and I took it. The dogs really helped me calm down.”

Alan Manning, a therapy dog handler at the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, takes an active role in attending therapy dog events and making weekly visits to schools and a hospital in downtown Los Angeles, including occasional visits to USC. He and his dog Maya have accomplished almost 400 visits in the two years of her certification as a therapy dog.

 Manning echoes similar sentiments to Nahouray’s on the excitement of students interacting with therapy dogs, “I can just see them light up. People who know and like dogs smile a lot when they see them. There were people that were afraid of dogs, but Maya is the perfect dog to help them get over that fear,” Manning said. 

He emphasizes the reciprocal benefit of interactions between therapy dogs and students, noting that therapy dogs like Maya receive joy from engaging with people. 

“When we arrived … she’s verbalizing how excited she is about being there, and I can say that I’m benefiting just seeing her interacting with people the way she does,” Manning added. 

Associate professor of clinical occupational therapy Ashley Uyeshiro Simon — who teaches occupational science and leads a course called “Animal and Human Interconnections in Daily Life” — has extensive experience with animal-assisted therapy and attests to the positive impacts of therapy dogs on human health.  

“There’s a decent amount of research on therapy animal interactions. Even a brief interaction with a therapy dog can be an effective means of stress management,” Uyeshiro Simon said. 

 Uyeshiro Simon continued and said the relationships formed are complex, essentially centered on the biochemical release within the human brain. 

“Particularly, we’re talking about oxytocin, which is that ‘love hormone.’ It’s the actual act of petting, like when you touch each other. You get an even enhanced oxytocin response when you make eye contact,” Uyeshiro Simon said. “The dog and the human can have this sort of love response, which is so amazing. You get all of these other benefits like endorphins and serotonin.” 

 By encouraging students to focus on the present moment, therapy dogs help alleviate anxiety and foster a sense of calmness. “And then you add on top of that, since I’m an OT, the sensory aspect. A dog will lick your hand or your pet the soft fur. There’s also sort of this bonding and relaxation response when you have that sort of tactile input,” Uyeshiro Simon said.

As the semester marches on and deadlines loom, it’s easy for stress to pile up and weigh heavily on many students’ shoulders. Amid the high-pressure college lifestyle, students love to spend a few precious moments with these tail-wagging companions, and even without knowing the science behind why, we know that their unconditional love and boundless joy are magically stress-relieving and healing. 

“We’re all young, having this workload is tough, so taking a break and seeing these dogs is awesome,” Nahouray said.

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