Eight students crowd around, smiling and laughing, sitting and kneeling on the floor of the Social Work Library. Their faces are relaxed, their postures unguarded and open. Their focus? Schnitzel and Tex, two Vizsla therapy dogs who are at the library for their monthly visit.
“This really gives me perspective,” says Adeline Dettor, a second-year MSW student. “Whether I finish this paper today versus tomorrow is not important—what’s important right now is to be with these dogs!”
These monthly visits are thanks to Hannah Ha, head librarian. When Ha arrived on campus in 2013, there were therapy dogs at the Boston College Law Library, and she had it in the back of her mind to start something similar at the Social Work Library. For Ha, a library is more than just a place for resources; it’s also a refuge, a place for study, and a nurturing environment. “We like to treat students as a whole here,” she explains, “we’re more than just a storehouse for books.”
A year later, a 100-lb Bernese Mountain Dog named Campbell lumbered into the library, and Ha knew that the concept was a winner. “You don’t normally see students beaming when they come into the library—they’re usually here because something is due or a test is imminent,” she says, “but they let all of that go when they’re with the dogs.”
Ha notices a palpable sense of relief in the library when the dogs visit. “Our students are in all sorts of environments—hospitals, prisons, schools—and are involved in very emotionally taxing subject,” she explains. “It’s such a giving profession, and the dogs help the students put their guard down in a way that nothing else can seem to do.”
Ha’s perceptions are borne out by plentiful research. Studies have shown even just short interactions with animals, can, among other things, lower blood pressure, increase feelings of psychological well-being and self esteem, and alleviate stress from traumatic events. When students returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the February 2018 shooting, they were greeted by multiple therapy dogs; shortly thereafter, a Bernese Mountain Dog-Poodle mix named River joined the school as an honorary staff member.
After starting the program at the Social Work Library, Ha reached out to other libraries on campus about hosting additional dog visits. O’Neill Library took her up on the concept, and it proved so popular that the dogs are now a regular feature at the campus’s largest and most visible library. “Students have grown to expect it—it’s not just a special offering, it’s part of their library experience,” Ha says.
Back at the Social Work Library visit, students are petting the dogs and cooing over photos of Tex and Schnitzel as puppies that Livia Givoni, their owner, who volunteers her and the dogs’ time, is sharing on her phone. Katie Sclafani, a second-year MSW student, pulls out her phone to show photos of her family’s dogs adorned in holiday sweaters. “Aren’t they the cutest?” she asks, as Livia and the other students laugh in agreement. “My family has lots of dogs, but I don’t have any of them here, so I just melt whenever I see one,” she adds. “Being with these dogs just makes my day.” Sclafani also sees therapy dogs in action in her placement at the Boston Children’s Hospital emergency room. “When we ask the kids what we can bring them, they all ask for their dog,” she says. “And, when the therapy dogs come around, we see kids who haven’t smiled in what seems like weeks, and they just … beam. It’s incredible.”
“I didn’t know how much I needed this!” says Seung Ming Oh, a Boston College senior, as Schnitzel goes in for a cuddle. Another student reluctantly gets up to leave. “I have to go to class, where I won’t have nearly as much fun as this,” she says with a sigh and a final pat for Tex.
“It helps bring a small reminder of home to our students,” says Ha, “and offers a different perspective on what the library does—it shows that we care about them, not just about checking out their books.”
Tails wag, students smile, and everyone looks forward to the next visit.
Photography by Chris Soldt.