Photo by Brea Cunningham

Knox College Counseling Services has begun offering pet therapy to students who want to spend time with a four-legged friend—to be specific, a specially trained, 5-year-old dog named Olive.

“Olive is an extrovert and loves being around people,” says Claire Palmer, who is Olive’s owner and the intake coordinator at Counseling Services. “She’s very gentle, loving, and playful.”

Pet therapy is one of the self-guided therapy options available through Counseling Services, says Assistant Dean for Student Wellness/Director of Counseling Services Janell McGruder. “The self-guided therapy options [which also include light therapy and biofeedback] are ways for students to seek out forms of therapy and coping mechanisms, without going through the normal intake process,” she explains.

The process for scheduling an appointment with Olive is simple: First, students must arrange a day and time through Counseling Services, and then read and sign a waiver and consent form. Each appointment lasts about 15 minutes.

“The type of interaction depends on Olive,” says Palmer, who is always present during the pet therapy sessions. “We all just follow Olive’s lead in terms of how she interacts with the student.”

Sometimes, Olive is in a playful mood, and she’ll chase a ball or engage in a game of tug-of-war. At other times, Palmer explains, Olive prefers to nap in the student’s lap or in a chair beside the
student, or she may lie on the floor and “gladly receive” a belly rub.

Some students have had several therapy sessions with Olive, and she now recognizes them. She “gets very excited and tends to be more interactive with some of her regular ‘fans,’” Palmer says.

“There are many benefits to pet therapy, both physically and mentally,” McGruder adds. The mental health benefits include providing comfort, decreasing anxiety, lessening symptoms of depression, reducing boredom and loneliness, and lifting spirits.