‘Pawsitive’ impact: Therapy dog in training set to serve students


This silver labradoodle is no ordinary administrator. Lily is in training to become a therapy dog so she can be of service to community members at the Brandeis Counseling Center.

She belongs to Joy Von Steiger, the Brandeis Counseling Center director, who in recent years has been bringing dogs to campus during times like finals to help students de-stress. This summer, she linked up with Lily at Gooseberry Breeders, a local breeder known for its calm and people-pleasing puppies.

“She wants to be close to us; loved, pet, and cuddled,” Von Steiger said of Lily. “She has an eagerness to be in a relationship with us, which ends up soothing us.”

Labradoodles are a mix of Labrador retrievers and standard poodles; both breeds are extremely people-pleasing, though poodles are especially docile. Lily’s inclination to be with others causes co-regulation, which Von Steiger said is a natural human impulse derived from when a baby receives soothing care from its mother.

“The animal interacts with us and we’re allowed to co-regulate,” she said. “It’s a sort of emotional therapy. Our heart rate and blood pressure come down.”

As a labradoodle, Lily is hypoallergenic, making her accessible to everyone. That said, simply being a calm and friendly breed of dog isn’t enough of a qualification to make her fit to work with patients.

The process for becoming a certified therapy dog is rigorous. To get the certification, a dog has to learn to suppress a number of its natural urges, from nibbling on strangers to sitting still for three minutes straight.

Lily, who hasn’t yet turned 1 (in human years), is working in concert with Von Steiger and getting her training from Dan Cavalletto, a psychologist with extensive experience in dog training.

Lily the therapy dog
Photo/Tarah Llewelyn

Lily the therapy dog

Von Steiger will slowly start introducing Lily to the community, first through activities and events during potential high-stress times for Brandeis students, like finals. 

“What we’ve found in the counseling center is that animals can be helpful in many ways,” Von Steiger said. “During finals, we will come together in groups. We’ll all sit on the floor and talk to each other and play together with the dogs. Students will show pictures of their dogs and it reminds them of home and comforts them. 

“We find that students will want to come back to the counseling center and sit with us and play with the dogs again and be able to ease the stress on whatever is going on in life,” Von Steiger added.

Lily will stay in Von Steiger’s office on the second floor of the Counseling Center year-round and will be available for office hours. Von Steiger welcomes anyone in the Brandeis community to meet with her and Lily and to use all the resources available to them.

“My hope is that students who might not think to come to the Counseling Center will want to spend time with the dog,” Von Steiger said. “Hopefully they can see that this isn’t a scary place and that they can get support from the staff. College does have itself stressful times, whether it’s related to schoolwork, what’s going on in the world, or being homesick. We’re here to help students in any way we can.”

Brandeis provides a variety of support services to our community. For a comprehensive list of resources available to students, faculty and staff, please visit the Support at Brandeis website.  

Categories: General, Student Life

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