Pete's Pet Posse Brings Smiles and Therapy to Campus Family: An Interview with Lara Sypniewski, DVM, DABVP, CVA, CCRP
A large college campus may be one of the most diverse locations on the planet. Hundreds of different academic and career goals, hometowns, ethnic makeups, areas of research, and deadlines span the breadth of the campus. Yet, across every college campus in every city, state, and country, there is usually one commonality amongst all students, faculty, administrators, and staff members: the presence of what seems to be a never-ending cloud of anxiety looming over their lives.
Lara Sypniewski, DVM, DABVP, CVA, CCRP is acutely aware of the “epidemic of anxiety” that faces a college’s campus family. As a veterinarian, she is also very aware of the pleasure and stress relief associated with being around animals. Sypniewski’s understanding of both of these concepts drove her to help establish the first permanent pet therapy program on a college campus, Oklahoma State University’s Pete’s Pet Posse.
Helping Animals in Order to Help People
Sypniewski completed her undergraduate studies at Purdue University in 1994 and went on to graduate from the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 1998. Following college, she took on an internship in small animal medicine, and eventually, went into private practice. Twelve years into her private practice career, she made the decision to go into higher education, moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma, and joined the Oklahoma State University (OSU) faculty.
Sypniewski is certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners in Canine and Feline Medicine and is a Certified Veterinary Medical Acupuncturist. She specializes in the areas of rehabilitation and pain management. Ultimately, she describes her job as treating animals and keeping them healthy in order to make people happy.
Pete’s Pet Posse Excites OSU Community
Several years ago, OSU was in the pursuit of receiving the title of “America’s Healthiest Campus.” The path towards this designation included the strengthening of not only the campus’ physical health, but its emotional and mental health, too. As Sypniewski learned more about OSU’s push towards becoming a healthier place to learn, work, and thrive, the idea of creating a program to bring pets on campus struck her. Upon brainstorming with Kendria Cost, an individual who works in Human Resources and is an Executive Assistant to OSU’s First Lady Anne Hargis, Sypniewski began devising a plan to create a pet therapy program to improve the emotional health of the campus family.
After receiving Hargis’ blessing and the okay from Dean of the Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, Dr. Jean Sander, Sypniewski and her team presented their plan for creating a “natural, organic extension of America’s Healthiest Campus.” The development of a pet therapy program stimulated amazing interest and gained support from university leaders, the on-campus wellness center, and an advisory board.
In September 2013, Pete’s Pet Posse was officially launched as a pilot pet therapy program on OSU’s campus. It is maintained through the OSU Center for Veterinary Health Sciences and the support of the OSU Veterinary Medical Hospital, University Counseling, Human Resources, and Employee Assistance Program.
Dog and Handler Teams’ Volunteerism
All of the dogs in Pete’s Pet Posse have their own unique backgrounds and personalities. Many of them are rescues who faced traumatic situations and injury before being adopted and giving back to OSU Cowboys. Despite the variety of dogs involved with the program, they all share a love for people and bringing a smile to every face they meet.
Before joining the program, both dogs and handlers are involved with several interviews and formal training in order to prepare them for handling people who have been involved with tragic, depressing, and stressful situations. The dogs are selected based on temperament and behavior when interacting with a variety of humans. Sypniewski described the human-halves of the therapy teams as amazing people who are very important players in effective pet therapy.
“The handlers are just as important as the dogs. They must know how to handle all sorts of situations and be prepared when someone opens up to them. The volunteerism of these amazing people is truly commendable,” said Sypniewski.
Currently, there are 13 therapy dogs who are officially part of Pete’s Pet Posse and nine additional dogs who are in the process of formally joining the program. All of the dogs belong to and live with OSU faculty and staff members and work with their owner as a volunteer team on OSU’s campus. As a token of appreciation, OSU provides food, vaccinations, and any other services necessary to keep all of the dogs in the program healthy and able to bring joy to those around campus.
Each dog is assigned to a specific department at OSU and works with their owner to meet the needs of that department and the rest of the campus. For instance, the counseling center once had a student who needed therapy after experiencing a crisis situation. The counseling center then contacted the Human Resources department to request a visit from their dog. This approach allows for the dogs to have a departmental location where they regularly provide therapeutic benefits but also reach those in other locations across campus when necessary.
The dogs spend nine hours a week in their respective departments and are also required to attend a variety of other events and functions to benefit OSU students, faculty, staff, and visitors. Overall, the 13 dogs in Pete’s Pet Posse completed 246 appearances in 10 months, in addition to the nine hours they each work per week. While it is hard to calculate the exact number of people who have been impacted by Pete’s Pet Posse, there have been thousands of individuals who have had the opportunity to meet the dogs, give them a pat on the head or scratch behind the ears, and truly benefit from the power of pet therapy.
Spreading the Word
Social media, by far, has been the leading form of promotion for Pete’s Pet Posse. The program utilizes Twitter and Facebook extensively to reach students and faculty and inform them that there are dogs on campus who would love to make their day a little brighter. Catching peoples’ attention while they are robotically scrolling through their Twitter and Facebook feeds is important to the Pete’s Pet Posse team, so they have worked to be creative, even previously engaging people through an ongoing love story with two of the dogs as the main characters.
Additionally, information about the program has been communicated through emails to all of OSU’s department heads, through a thorough website, and through participation in TED Talks.
“It is important to share what we have available right here on campus every single day. We just try to use every resource we can to say hey, if your see this dog on campus, please go pet her; she’s a therapy dog,” said Sypniewski, “The campus family is under an epidemic of anxiety, and we want to improve the quality of life and make people happy.”
Dogs Ease ‘Epidemic of Anxiety’ on College Campuses
The dogs are often used as forms of therapy for the everyday stresses of college life. Students are constantly under pressure because of grades, finances, and making critical decisions. There are also the feelings of homesickness and loneliness that often plague many students, especially freshmen. Pete’s Pet Posse aims to be proactive and make lots of visits to popular campus locations during times such as move-in week when many students feel emotionally unstable. There are also recurring pet therapy events, such as Yappy Hour in the library, that are held to allow students the opportunity to stop by and take a step away from everything else that is going on in their lives on a regular basis.
Sypniewski said, “People seem to think okay, I can’t worry about my life right now because I’m too busy petting this dog.”
OSU’s employees also benefit from a lick on the hand and the gaze of two deep brown, innocent eyes. The pressure of doing more with less, performing to a higher degree, and maintaining a family life can lead many faculty and staff members towards anxiety. But, when a member of Pete’s Pet Posse saunters into an office, everyone seems to drop what they are doing, get down on their hands and knees, and receive some much needed pet therapy.
When crisis does arise on campus, Pete’s Pet Posse is available to provide support as well. Therapy dogs have been put to use in the past after tragic situations such as the death of a member of a sorority and the suicide of one student’s sibling.
“The leash is, essentially, a bridge to increase communication between humans,” said Sypniewski.
People approach the dog and immediately start petting and talking to it. This seems to make them feel more comfortable, and they will usually then look up and start talking to the handler. This is especially helpful when students are hesitant to share their feelings with a counselor and need to first interact with the dog to open the lines of communication.
No matter the situation, Pete’s Pet Posse is always ready to provide a moment of joy and a furry neck to hug.
Future for Pete’s Pet Posse and Pet Therapy Programs at Other Universities
Since Pete’s Pet Posse is still fairly young, the program’s leadership has big plans for the future. They would like to make their way into every department on campus so that everyone has the opportunity to take a break and visit with a dog on a regular basis.
Outside of the university, Sypniewski mentioned that the goal is to add to the number of therapy animals used as first responders in Oklahoma during times of tragedy by deploying Pete’s Pet Posse to local, city, regional, and statewide areas of need. Recently, therapy dogs have been brought in from states as far away as North Carolina following natural disasters such as the Moore Tornado in May 2013. Sypniewski hopes that in the future Pete’s Pet Posse will be able to travel statewide to serve their fellow Oklahomans.
Currently, there are many other universities that employ pet therapy during high-stress times such as finals week, but Pete’s Pet Posse has made it their goal to be proactive, not reactive.
Sypniewski believes, “Once [other universities] see how our program impacts the campus community, programs with a set up similar to ours will reach onto and start making big impacts on other campuses.”