Therapy dogs offer RMU students adorable benefits to mental health


Shorkies Violet and Dash at 2019’s Out of the Darkness Walk. Moon, PA. April 16, 2019. RMU Sentry Media/Garret Roberts. Photo credit: Garret Roberts

Michael Sciulli, Sports Copy Editor

MOON TOWNSHIP — “They’re the most effective outreach tool we’ve ever had,” said Holly Harmon, the director of the Counseling Center at Robert Morris University. That tool is her two pet “shorkies” — a shih tzu and yorkie mix — Dash and Violet.

Violet has recently turned three years old and has been coming to the Counseling Center since she was eight weeks old. According to Harmon, Violet is a loving and affectionate dog. “She loves nothing more than to have her belly rubbed and to just kind of sit and snuggle,” said Harmon.

While Violet is calm and quiet, seven-month-old Dash has a more playful personality. According to Harmon, Dash enjoys running, playing fetch and engaging with people.

The pair of pups spend their days with RMU students and staff who stop into the Counseling Center. “They are a dynamic duo for making you feel better,” read a note from an anonymous Counseling Center guest.

“Violet will give you unconditional love for whatever is going on … sometimes you don’t want to talk, you just kind of want to feel things,” said Harmon. “Sometimes you don’t want to think about whatever is going through your mind and Dash is a great dog for distracting you and playing.”

“If somebody is stressed out or missing their pet, or they just want to snuggle with a dog, they go to Violet. If they want to come in to play, Dash is their man,” said Beth Lucas, who is in her fifth year as the secretary of the Counseling Center.

In her role as secretary, Lucas sees first-hand the effect of the dogs in the waiting room. “It’s remarkable,” said Lucas. “Students come in here just to play with the dogs.”

Violet Therapet
Violet in the Counseling Center. Moon, Pa. April 9, 2019. RMU Sentry Media/Michael Sciulli. Photo credit: Michael Sciulli

People enter the Counseling Center missing their dogs or stressing about a test, and after playing with Dash and Violet, visitors walk out of the doors different from how they entered.

Harmon also said that students were coming in and talking about missing their pets at home, with one anonymous Counseling Center guest writing: “I love these dogs! I miss my pets so much and seeing them makes me feel better.”

They also help battle the stigma of coming to the Counseling Center. While students may be apprehensive at first, the thera-pets can serve as an invitation to those needing the center’s assistance.

“We are constantly thinking about ways to reduce the stigma,” said Harmon. “How can we make the Counseling Center more welcoming? How can we make the Counseling Center more comfortable. We thought we would combine two great things, which is a reason to come in and pet a dog and just hang out and having them come see our space and get to know us.”

Rebecca Held, a senior THRIVE leader at RMU, shared a similar sentiment. “I think they make the Counseling Center more welcoming.”

In her role, Held helps connect RMU students with the Counseling Center by doing outreach activities to heighten awareness on mental health issues. While she has not personally involved the dogs in any of her workshop events, some of her colleagues have included Dash and Violet as a part of their event.

The dogs were scheduled to appear for a Valentine’s Day even, where visitors could take photos with the dogs in a photo booth.Unfortunately, according to Held, one of the dogs was sick for the event and therefore, neither of them were at the event that day.

While Dash and Violet are not certified therapy pets, that does not mean that there has been no training for the certification. Violet began her training, but due to Violet’s calm nature, she did not need to pursue further training.

As for seven-month-old Dash, he is still too young to do his therapy pet training. Harmon thinks that he will do the training, with Dash beginning to work on the basics.

Lucas assured that Dash is slowly but surely learning from the way Violet acts and Harmon agreed. “He watches her and he knows to run and greet people at the door. That’s nothing we’ve trained Violet for, she just instinctively wants to see who comes in. So he is picking up some of the good stuff.”

Despite neither Dash or Violet being a certified therapy pet, their presence is still effective. “These dogs can really relieve any homesickness I might be feeling,” wrote an anonymous Counseling Center guest. “They are a worthwhile investment for the emotional well being of students.”

There is research to back up this claim as well, according to the Journal of College Counseling, interactions with dogs have a relationship with reduced stress levels. The journal’s study found that students perceived lower levels of stress after interacting with dogs when they were brought in. Nearly all of the students (92.9 percent) that completed prior and post surveys reported less stress after the event.

These students also requested more events where they could interact with the dogs. The study pointed out that hosting more of these events is a low-cost method that can benefit a large and diverse student body.