UNC graduate student Rachel Huss said people's eyes light up when they see her dog Oliver on campus.
Oliver is a three-year-old Bernedoodle — half-Bernese mountain dog, half-poodle — currently in his last stretch of training to become a certified therapy dog.
His owner, Huss, refers to Oliver as a “chief pawsitivity officer,” spreading comfort to those around him.
Huss said she is a graduate student in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, produces a lifestyle blog and works in social media consultation. However, she has been diligently training Oliver for the last three years.
Therapy dogs are used in public spaces to relieve emotional discomfort and promote well-being, often serving alongside their humans.
Huss said that therapy dogs are trained to be calm in the presence of noises, smells and other stimuli most dogs are sensitive to. This is so they can be calm and provide comfort in atypical settings, she said.
Oliver will soon serve in one of these stressful environments — working with children in hospitals, Huss said.
Huss was inspired to own a therapy dog while participating in a fundraiser for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals as an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida.
She later watched a video of a Bernese mountain dog acting as a therapy animal and knew she wanted to provide a similar comfort to those around her.
“Obviously, I would want my dog to do the same thing, because he brings so much joy,” she said.
Huss shared that another inspiration for training Oliver came from a previous boss of hers that brought dogs into the workspace.
“It brought everyone’s energy up, and everyone was so calm,” she said, reflecting on the experience. “If people were having a bad day, we would take the dog and have a few minutes with it. It was just a nice way to decompress. And I knew I wanted to help people do that.”
Oliver visits Carroll Hall quite frequently, and Huss loves when students get excited to see him.
Staff in Carroll seem to feel the same way about Oliver.
Stephanie Brown, the director of Park Library, said that she enjoys seeing Oliver and that he is equally happy to see her.
When Oliver visits, Brown and Rachel inform students in the library that a therapy dog-in-training is available to visit.
“Their faces just light up, and they’re just so happy to see a dog,” Brown said.
Those close to Huss admire her commitment to brightening her surroundings.
“It says a lot about Rachel to volunteer to get Ollie certified to be a therapy dog because not all dogs can do that," Hussman Associate Professor Livis Freeman said. "It's a big commitment for the owners to take them through the process."
Freeman knows the challenges students face, especially those regarding mental health. He believes that well-being programs on campus are crucial to mental health. Simple, quick joys like meeting Oliver, he said, can make a great difference in a student’s day.
“As we live in this pressure-cooker environment, the ability to focus on ‘the now’ is really special, and that is what Oliver teaches people,” Huss said.
While having a therapy dog may not be suitable for everyone, Huss encourages those who are interested to make the effort.
“Taking your dog for an afternoon going somewhere — you’re just going for the afternoon," Huss said. "But for the people he impacts, it makes a much longer time of an impact."
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