Rover to the Rescue at OSU

posted October 20th, 2014 by
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Pete's Pet Posse

Pete’s Pet Posse is bringing health to the OSU campus

by Kiley Roberson

College life can be full of ups and downs. The excitement of new adventures packed with the stress of exams and loneliness of missing home. But at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, four-legged ambassadors are saving the day one student at a time.

These rescue rovers are members of the University’s new pet therapy program called Pete’s Pet Posse, named after OSU’s infamous cowboy mascot Pistol Pete, of course. The goal of the program is to positively enhance physical and emotional health throughout the campus and is spearheaded by the University’s First Cowgirl, Ann Hargis.

“At OSU, wellness is a big priority, and we have very robust programs in physical activity and nutrition,” explains Ann. “Pete’s Pet Posse is part of an increased wellness focus on the emotional health of our campus population.”

OSU’s President Burns Hargis and his wife Ann are true animal lovers. So it made sense when Ann invited a famous therapy dog, Rossi the Approval Poodle, for a campus visit last year. Droves of students lined up to visit with Rossi.

The response was so positive that Ann decided to explore a pet therapy program at OSU. Oklahoma State University is known for its outstanding veterinary school, so the program seemed like a natural fit. After extensive planning, the program began to take shape, and today the University has accepted eight pups into the posse.

“I have already seen these animals make a difference on campus,” says Ann. “The way the dogs interact with students, faculty and staff leaves everyone with a smile.”

And on a busy college campus, a smile can go a long way toward positive mental health. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels and feelings of loneliness. They can also provide greater opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities.

Dr. Lara Sypniewski is an OSU veterinarian and helped develop the Pet Posse Program. She says the benefits of pet therapy are clear.

“Research into student retention, wellness and academic progress has repeatedly shown that interaction with therapy dogs has positive effects on these parameters during the college experience,” explains Sypniewski.

“With mounting pressure on students, staff and faculty for ever greater achievement with smaller budgets and less time, college campuses have developed a ‘culture of stress.’ This culture has created an epidemic of anxiety, relationship and family problems, substance abuse, suicide and violence.

“Research has demonstrated that programs like Pete’s Pet Posse have the potential to lessen this anxiety epidemic and improve the quality of life of our campus family.”

Sypniewski is one of the veterinarians that works directly with the Pet Posse. She says becoming a certified therapy animal isn’t just a walk in the dog park.   

Each member of Pete’s Pet Posse must go through a veterinary exam and interview, a trainer disposition and behavior evaluation, and the owner has to be interviewed by   the advisory committee. The pets also enter into a training program and can only be approved after they graduate.

All of the dogs involved in the program live with their owners full-time and are simply volunteers for the University. After they have completed their training and are accepted into the posse, the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital (with the support of Merial and Purina) provides the pets’ food and wellness care, such as vaccinations, heartworm treatment and flea and tick preventative. The pets must also be reevaluated each year to stay in the program.

It’s a rigorous process, but owners like Kendria Cost say it’s worth it. Cost is the executive assistant to the First Lady and helped create the program. She’s also the proud owner of Pet Posse member Charlie, an 18-month-old German Shepherd rescue.

“The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Cost.” The Office of Campus Life has a treat drawer for the dogs that visit. Several of the dogs have been on campus long enough that people call them by name and run to greet them.”

One of those people is OSU student Alex Miller, a freshman from Fort Worth, Texas, double majoring in music education and clinical child psychology. Just a few weeks into her first semester, homesickness   struck. She missed her family back home, especially her two Labradors that always knew how to cheer her up. Feeling blue after class, Miller decided to stop by the Student Union for a coffee where she met Cost, and most importantly, Charlie.

“I stepped into the Student Union and right at the front desk was this big ball of fur, tongue out, tail wagging. I asked to pet him, and as I got down to his level to give him some love, I just started crying,” explains Miller. “All the stress of moving somewhere new and starting completely over   with friends and living and so on was removed, and I felt more at home than ever. I was able to vicariously love my dogs through him that day.”

Visiting with Charlie made a huge impact on Miller. Pete’s Pet Posse gave her an outlet in which to get involved, and now she promotes it to everyone.

“I think this program is a perfect asset to have at a University, especially for the students who    are living a long way away from their homes, like I am. You’re really able to have that kind of connection, and it helps with settling down in a place that is brand new,” says Miller. “Now I’m involved in the program and also volunteer at the Stillwater Humane Society. I feel more at home than ever at OSU, and I see Charlie every chance I get.”

Changing lives like Miller’s is what Pete’s Pet Posse is all about. But it helps that the pets benefit too.

“I am especially proud that most of these animals are rescues, and in true Cowboy spirit are giving back to others,” says Ann. “This program reaches across all campus boundaries and is truly multidisciplinary in the approach to wellness. I look forward to continued successes and can’t wait to see where these pups take us on our journey of becoming America’s healthiest campus.” 

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