Universities are now much more aware of the need to support students who are feeling stressed by work pressures and exams. Librarians, of course, tend to see more of the anguish than academics, who only encounter students occasionally during the examination period. One of the more imaginative and empathetic ways that has been developed to help alleviate stress is to introduce a therapy dog to the library, to provide “animal assisted wellness”. In 2017 MacOdrum Library at Carleton University (Ontario, Canada) appointed Uncle Steven, a dog named after his first foster carer’s uncle, to be the stress-buster-in-chief at the university.
Uncle Steven was a rescue dog, a Basset hound saved by the Edmonton Basset Rescue Society from a “puppy mill”. For seven years he had been kept in a crate and used as a breeding hound. He had never been in a house or car and did not like to be near men.
His original foster carer was unable to continue to look after him because she already had two babies and two dogs to look after. He was therefore adopted by John Vendel and his wife Erika Banski, both of whom are librarians.
Uncle Steven visited the MacOdrum Library for an hour and a half twice a week during the exam season. His services were appreciated by university staff and students alike, who played with him and talked to him and found him a very effective therapy dog. Apparently there is a scientific reason for the remarkable success these dogs are able to achieve: humans release a de-stressing hormone when petting an animal. 10 or 15 minutes spent with Uncle Steven were therefore very effective for calming students (and staff!) and motivating them to take a positive attitude towards their work. John Vendel said that the benefits were two-way: Uncle Steven had been so neglected as a young dog that he was now enjoying the attention and lapping it up. The students who petted him unanimously agreed that he had helped to calm them and make them more cheerful. John said that he “seemed to know” how anxious students were feeling.
Here is a picture of John with Uncle Steven. Sadly, Uncle Steven passed away in April this year. To mark all the good work he had done, at a ceremony in the President’s office his owners, Erika and John received a “posthumous distinction” award. Erika is on the left of the photo, wearing a red dress; John is standing next to the President, who is holding the certificate.