Everyone wants to take a selfie with Abi.
Being photogenic is a plus on college campuses, but it’s not Abi’s only talent. She has strong interpersonal abilities. She creates and maintains positive relationships while team building.
And if you scratch her neck, she will apply a friendly lick to your face.
Abi, a 4-year-old Labrador retriever mix, is short for Abilene — as in the West Texas city. She spent this week helping stressed-out college students relax as they studied for final exams.
“Honestly, I was having a very bad day,” said Evelyn Morales, 21, a psychology major who cuddled Abi at Tarrant County College’s Trinity River Campus in downtown Fort Worth. “I only slept three hours. I feel much better.”
Volunteer teams with the Delta Hearts of Gold Dog Therapy non-profit and Paws with Partners, an organization serving Mansfield and Arlington, brought their dogs this week to TCC and the University of Texas at Arlington.
Therapy dogs volunteer at schools, hospitals, nursing homes and homeless shelters. They are not service dogs, which are trained to help people with disabilities, according to the American Kennel Club.
“I believe God gave dogs, and a lot of animals, a lot of God’s special attributes,” said Dianne Hughes, president and founding member of Delta Hearts of Gold, which is affiliated with Pet Partners International, Inc. “They love unconditionally. They are totally nonjudgmental. They are always happy to share their love with anybody.”
Hughes is quick to add that the word “dog” is “god,” spelled backward.
The benefits of therapy dogs
The American Kennel Club defines a therapy dog as a dog that visits schools, hospitals and nursing homes to offer comfort. They are different from service dogs, which are “specially trained to perform specific tasks to help a person who has a disability,” according to the kennel club.
Smiles are contagious when a therapy dog enters a room, Hughes said, adding that their charisma is helping students cope with stress, as well as patients in hospice care or hospitals and homeless people.
I am a dog lover. Any dog I see, I want to pet.
Alejandro Del Castillo, 20, automotive major at TCC
Therapy dog advocates say research shows that interaction with dogs helps lower anxiety and anger levels. These interactions also improve self-esteem, self-confidence while decreasing depression and loneliness.
Dog therapy began to be offered in September 2014 at Tarrant County College’s Trinity River Campus to help alleviate final exam stress.
That message is touted on UT Arlington’s Paws for Finals program.
“Studies have proved that petting a friendly dog reliably lowers blood pressure and stress-related hormones in the blood, slows heart rate, regularizes breathing and releases tension from muscles,” says UTA’s information on dog therapy.
Those positive effects are the subject of a June 2009 article in Psychology Today.
Delta Hearts of Gold has about 55 volunteer teams — a dog and a handler — who visit people at various places, including universities, elementary school libraries, and homeless shelters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Often, they visit locations in Granbury, Keller, Flower Mound, Aledo and Fort Worth.
Delta Hearts volunteer teams are also helping little ones improve their reading skills through the R.E.A.D. program. The acronym stands for: Reading Education Assistance Dogs.
During this final exam season, volunteer teams from Delta Hearts worked to calm nerves at TCC’s Trinity River Campus, the University of North Texas Health Science Center and TCU.
Hughes said they also worked a “de-stress day” for college students at McKinney Church in Fort Worth.
‘Abi is awesome’
“Hi, sweetheart,” gushed a TCC student who noticed Abi sitting in the library of the Trinity River Campus.
Studying for finals is a stressful time, college students say. Sleep is optional. Eating — at least a healthy meal — is not a priority.
“Finals are just so stressful,” said Madison Baldwin, 19, who is studying pediatric nursing.
Easing nerves was the reason Suzanne Beckett, director of TCC’s Trinity River Campus Library, decided to bring the program to her campus. She had seen a similar program while working at UT Arlington.
Therapy dogs are available to students at the end of every semester, Beckett said.
Abi, a rescue dog, was the comforter of choice at TCC.
Students sat on the floor to pet Abi, who tenderly obliged. Many took photos — selfies — with their cellphones.
“This is the best thing they can do,” said Cami Babineaux, 20, who is majoring in kinesiology. “Everyone loves animals. Just being around her made me feel happier.”
Isabella Benitez, a 21-year-old political science major, took a break from her studies in geology to meet Abi.
“Abi is awesome,” Benitez said. “You just feel better after you pet an animal.”