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Oklahoma State University Pete's Pet Posse Therapy Dogs Help Heal the Campus
On October 24, 2015, a crisp, fall morning awakened excitement for “America’s Greatest Homecoming Celebration” at Oklahoma State University. Flags, bands, floats, families, children and a sea of orange filled downtown Stillwater for the annual parade.
In a terrible instant … celebration turned to tragedy as a car careened into the crowd leaving four dead, more than 40 injured and countless others in shock. The sound of sirens, ambulances and helicopters filled the air as the communities of OSU and the city of Stillwater rushed to save lives and mourn their losses.
On that day, OSU’s Pete’s Pet Posse was called into service with dog/owner/handler teams fanning out across the campus to offer support and solace to an aching community.
“We’re on campus all the time, so it was a natural extension of who we are and why we are here,” says OSU First Cowgirl Ann Hargis, co-founder of Pete’s Pet Posse. Her dog Scruff is a registered pet therapy dog.
Registered therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort to individuals at hospitals, nursing homes, school campuses and other facilities.
“The enormity of the tragedy touched everyone you talked to that week, and OSU University Counseling engaged all of our human and canine counselors to meet the needs of the campus and the community,” says Trevor Richardson, OSU Counseling Services director.
Lorinda Schrammel and her Pete’s Pet Posse dog, Evie, were asked to be at the OSU police station the day after the crash.
“The university police were active at the crime scene and the football game all day and night,” Schrammel says. “I remember some of them looked glazed over. When the dogs came into the room, the mood shifted. Some of the officers saw the dogs and immediately came straight to us. I think dogs have a sixth sense about what we need as humans.”
Hargis and her therapy dog Scruff went to the heart of a grieving campus where an entire department was feeling the acute loss of the youngest parade victim — two-year-old Nash Lucas. Nash was one of hundreds of children innocently watching the parade when he was killed. His mother worked at the OSU parking and transportation services offices on campus. Her supervisor, Steve Spradling, director of parking and transportation services, welcomed the visit from the pet therapy program.
“You are not prepared for anything like the loss of a two-year-old child,” Spradling says. “Fortunately, Ann contacted us about coming over and bringing her pet therapy dog, Scruff.”
The parking and transportation services office is like a family, and the parade tragedy provoked suffering in all stages of grief from denial and beyond.
“With a tender look in his eye, smiling face Scruff would go around to everyone in the room and calm them down,” Hargis says. “I’ve learned they have an innate sense of what is needed at the moment.”
“I think the dogs can sense when somebody needs attention, and they go to them to just be there for them,” he says. “It was just calming during our office therapy sessions with university counseling about the events of the parade and the loss of Nash.”
Pete’s Pet Posse teams partnered with university counseling specialists to visit offices across campus, and particularly at the Student Union where they went to work addressing the needs of the student body.
Sarah Riley, a freshman from Grove, Oklahoma, and a friend went in search of the dogs.
“I think it was the Wednesday after the crash — we needed to destress, and we decided to go pet the dogs,” Riley says. “That’s where I met Charlie.”
“I was just going to keep it bottled up, but then I got to talk with Charlie and the counselors,” she says. “The counselors were good, but they weren’t like Charlie!”
Riley knows it is Charlie’s love that unlocked her feelings in those terrible days.
“Charlie emphasizes love and just lays down beside you and doesn’t worry about what you are feeling — that’s home,” she says.
Richardson believes the secret to the Posse’s success is that unconditional positive regard you get from a dog.
“It happened over and over again those weeks last fall,” he says. “Counselors would be available to those in emotional need, but it was the dogs who made a unique impact by opening up emotions, making grievers more receptive to counseling. I could talk until I was blue in the face, and I could never achieve the same results the Pete’s Posse crew elicited in some of those people.
“Dogs look up at you, they are not judging, they are not thinking you are weak or less of a human being if you are crying or if you are upset. They are just there for you.”
A year later, Pete’s Pet Posse teams still serve those recovering from the events of the tragic parade.
“Before the tragedy, I certainly knew and respected the work of Pete’s Pet Posse, but I didn’t recognize how great they could be until witnessing the responses,” Richardson says.
Riley still visits with Charlie when she can. The campus and community are healing, but the anniversary of the parade, the trial of the woman charged with crashing her car into the crowd and other similar crimes across the globe keep emotions on edge for some. Pete’s Pet Posse is present on campus every day — typically in happy gatherings with students or in those normal campus stress times such as orientation and finals week.
But for those most deeply touched by the tragedy, special visits continue. The office mates of Bonnie Stone, killed alongside her husband Professor Emeritus Marvin Stone, keep a bulletin board with photos of all of the Pete’s Pet Posse dogs who visit. They will never forget, but the pet therapy dogs are helping to replace their grief with sweet memories.
About Pete's Pet Posse
Oklahoma State University’s Pete’s Pet Posse is the nation’s most comprehensive university pet therapy program. Named after OSU’s iconic mascot Pistol Pete, the posse was established in fall 2013 as part of OSU’s wellness initiative called America’s Healthiest Campus.® Pete’s Pet Posse is a cooperative effort of the OSU President’s Office, OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, OSU Veterinary Medical Hospital, University Counseling, Human Resources and the Employee Assistance Program. The pet therapy group includes more than 40 dog owner/handler teams. In 2015, the program grew to span three campuses including OSU-Stillwater, OSU-Tulsa and the OSU Center for Health Sciences. Future expansion plans are in the works to include additional OSU campuses.
The goal of Pete’s Pet Posse as a proactive pet therapy program is to bring smiles and comfort to students, faculty, staff and guests every day.
The teams are active in joyful gatherings greeting students and staff, and in moments of crisis, emotional stress and grief, and during new student and parent orientation. Specialized teams also work in nutrition/eating disorder counseling and communication sciences and disorders.
The dogs complete extensive training, which includes registration with Alliance of Therapy Dogs and Canine Good Citizen certification. Dogs serve in specific OSU campus departments and participate in special appearances across campus. The OSU College of Veterinary Medicine oversees the wellness care of the animals and ensures the animals are maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Most of the dogs are rescue animals and belong to volunteer families of employees and others affiliated with OSU. The university does not own the dogs. They live with their humans full-time and make the campus a little brighter shade of orange each time their furry feet hit campus.
Pete’s Pet Posse was created to positively enhance physical and emotional health, and contribute to the success of being America’s Healthiest Campus®.
OSU First Cowgirl Ann Hargis takes Pete's Pet Posse therapy dog, Scruff, for a checkup with Dr. Lara Sypniewski at the OSU Center for Veterinary Health Sciences. (PHOTO / PHIL SHOCKLEY)
Pet Therapy Parade Response Sparks Multi-Campus Research Project
The outstanding and comprehensive response of Pete’s Pet Posse to the 2015 OSU Homecoming parade tragedy has inspired a collaborative research team from three OSU campuses to combine resources to examine the impact of the dogs and their owner/handlers on the OSU campus community.
The collaborative research team is working to quantify the impact of the Pete's Pet Posse dogs' presence on students and faculty in the classroom and on OSU staff in the workplace.
The research team is made up of Dr. Lara Sypniewski, Henthorne Clinical Professor of Small Animal Medicine at the OSU Center for Veterinary Health Sciences; Matt Bowler, OSU-Tulsa associate professor of management; Alex Scrimpshire, OSU department of management graduate research assistant; and Vivian Stevens, clinical psychologist and associate dean for enrollment management at the OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa.
“We take for granted the job these dogs do when they are serving as pet therapists because they typically have a smile on their face and a wagging tail and don’t look like they are working,” Sypniewski says.
“Our primary goal in this study is to measure and calculate the difference these pet therapy visits have on the humans they encounter, both physically and emotionally. Our multidisciplinary team of work management specialists, veterinarians and a psychologist are uniquely qualified to use data analytics to assess these human/canine interactions.”
The investigational study is also exploring the effects of the Pete’s Pet Posse interactions on the participating dogs in Stillwater and Tulsa. Researchers are collecting data they hope will ultimately guide pet therapy owner/handlers in making positive choices regarding visit frequency and downtime needs.
Institutional Review Board study parameters and initial data analysis are expected in 2017.
View videos about Pete's Pet Posse on OSTATE.TV.
More stories like this are available for members of the OSU Alumni Association. STATE magazine is a benefit of membership in the OSU Alumni Association. To join or update your membership go to orangeconnection.org/join or call 405-744-5368.
Published by STATE Magazine Editor Elizabeth Keys, Winter 2016, Volume 12, Number 2
Uploaded on December 1, 2016
Photo gallery features more pictures of Pete's Pet Posse: