little girl and shitzu

Therapy animals can make a big difference in people’s lives. Whether it’s a dog or cat therapy team, or even a pig or horse, these animals offer important benefits to those in need.

While therapy pets are often found in hospitals and nursing homes, schools and universities are also enlisting their services to help students manage the stress of end-of-semester papers and finals. Playing with puppies certainly helps students deal with the pressure of exams, but could a therapy dog help with ongoing stress in their everyday academic lives?

Harvard Medical School is one of the few universities answering that question. Its Countway Library of Medicine is offering the services of a Shih Tzu therapy dog named Cooper to students, staff and faculty throughout the academic year — not just during finals.

Harvard Medical School researcher Dr. Loise Francisco is Cooper’s owner; she thought Cooper would be a good therapy dog due to his gentle, calm and understanding disposition. Dr. Francisco says that Cooper has compassionate eyes, likes people, and is also obedient — all of which are important traits for a therapy dog.

“I thought that it was a good way to give back to society and give Cooper’s life a purpose. He also seems to enjoy meeting new people,” says Dr. Francisco.

Joining Harvard

Cooper has been a therapy dog with an organization called Caring Canines for four years. He volunteers with them on weekends, visiting elderly-care facilities, rehabilitation hospitals and cancer centers.

Three years ago Cooper started making twice-weekly trips to Harvard, where Dr. Francisco and her husband both teach and do research. The couple wrote to the director of the Medical School Library to see if it was possible to start a therapy dog program using Cooper.

“As you can imagine, medicine and science are challenging fields," Dr. Francisco says. "The students and faculty on campus are very bright and driven people. With such intensity often comes stress. We thought it would be a great idea if anyone who wants to take a break from their busy and/or stressful day — they can relax or study with Cooper at their side."

Cooper seems to love his position at the library. Dr. Francisco says Cooper knows his way into the building from the parking garage, and he sprints through the double doors when he nears the library.

“I think it’s great that students and HMS staff have an outlet to relax or just spend time with a dog — perhaps they miss their own dog at home. I’ve noticed that when I drop Cooper off, all the patrons entering the library greet him with a smile and begin their day with a bit more levity,” she says.

A staff member at the library interacts with Cooper

Another Member of the Library Staff

Countway Library of Medicine access services manager Ashley Sway has seen Cooper’s effect on students and faculty firsthand. The two could be considered coworkers — Sway says Cooper is basically another member of the staff.

“When I started this job, I wasn’t sure what it would be like having a dog at work two days a week, but it is a pretty amazing experience," Sway says. "Sometimes he just lays on the couch we have and stays out of the way, but sometimes he likes to sit right in the heart of it all. Having a furry friend around behind the circulation desk makes us all smile. Other staff throughout the library also love stopping by and saying hello to him. There are a few regulars that stop by every time Cooper is here.”

Patrons now expect Cooper to be present on Tuesdays and Thursdsays, his two assigned weekdays, as he’s become an established member of the library. How in-demand Cooper’s skills are varies, but any patron interested in his services is welcome to go behind the circulation desk and hang out with him.

“Cooper is a pretty chill dog. If a patron just wants to sit and pet him, then he is all for that. If they pick up one of his toys and attempt to engage him with it, then he will certainly play. He seems happy to interact in whatever way the patron wants to interact with him without being overly hyper or excited,” Sway says.

Sway says that Cooper's presence behind the desk helps break down barriers between students and staff. She adds that it’s not only uplifting to see people interact with the dog but to see what they’re like when they walk away after spending time with him.

Based on their experiences with Cooper, both Sway and Dr. Francisco think other schools should offer therapy dog services year round. Dr. Francisco says that other schools have contacted her and her husband about setting up programs at other campuses across the country.

“I wasn’t sure what it would be like to work at a place with an animal around on a regular basis, but I have found it very rewarding,” Sway says.