‘Made for this’: Therapy Dog Tuesdays bring joy, relieve stress for students


Patrick Cavanagh | Senior Staff Photographer

A student pets Polli, Arleen Salerno’s 5-year-old golden retriever.

By Allison Radziwon, Senior Staff Writer

A miniature goldendoodle runs into the Cathedral Commons Room, immediately rushing over to students and begging to be pet. The students laugh and greet him by name — Clancy — before sitting down on the floor and gathering around him.

Bridget Watson O’Brien, Clancy’s owner, has brought her 4-year-old dog to Therapy Dog Tuesdays since May 2019. She said Clancy was “made for” therapy work.

“His personality was such that he’s just so friendly with everybody. I just decided from the start that’s what I wanted to do,” Watson O’Brien, who works at the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, said. “He absolutely loves it. He was made for this. He was actually sent here to do this, I believe.”

Therapy dogs visit the Cathedral’s first floor every Tuesday from 7 to 8 p.m. to help students relax from the stress of classes. The dogs attended classes at Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh, then got tested for certification by Therapy Dogs International, according to psychology professor Jennifer Silk. Silk said since Pitt is closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group is sponsored by a new club on campus, called Therapy Dogs Club, to continue holding the gatherings every week.

Silk, the Therapy Dogs Club adviser, said she realized the dogs could continue coming to Pitt during the pandemic if they were “sponsored” by a group of students. The dogs and their owners could then be considered “guests of the University,” and allowed on campus for visits.

“We found a group of students that were really interested in keeping the program going, and started the Therapy Dogs Club this year,” Silk said. “And so that club has been happening and students are sponsoring us coming and having a new club doing activities.”

Nikki Konley, the Therapy Dogs Club’s vice president, said the club currently has monthly general board meetings, which started in January. She said they plan to have weekly general board meetings in the next academic year. She said the goal of the club was to “make sure” the therapy dogs could come back.

“We really wanted to keep the therapy dogs coming to Pitt,” Konley, a sophomore majoring in industrial engineering, said. “This was always my favorite night of the week … and I really want this to be able to continue to happen.”

Omkar Betsur, the Therapy Dogs Club’s president, said he wants to plan more events with the therapy dogs outside of Tuesdays, such as volunteering at Humane Animal Rescue. He said with the mask mandate lifted Monday, he expects “more flexibility” with planning club events in the fall.

“I want to do events where we can introduce people to what the process [of training the dogs and becoming certified] is like. We also want to do local events, where we’re helping shelters,” Betsur, a sophomore majoring in biological sciences, said. “We’re just glad to be here and we have big plans.”

Silk often brings her 4-year-old golden retriever Simba, who became certified in July 2021 and started attending the Tuesday events in the fall. Silk said Simba became a therapy dog after encouragement from a trainer, as she has the “perfect personality.” Silk also said she was familiar with the program due to being a professor at Pitt.

“She’s so calm and obedient, but also really affectionate with most people,” Silk said. “I had come to the program before, so when I saw that she was suited for it, I thought ‘that’s what I want to do.’”

Simba can be spotted wearing a Pitt bandana she wears to every Tuesday event, according to Silk.

“When I put it on, she gets so excited. Today I opened up the door to check the temperature to see what coat I needed after I put her bandana on, and she thought I was leaving without her,” Silk said. “She ran out the door with me because she thought I was leaving without her.”

After two stressful midterms last fall, sophomore Abigail Lustyik started visiting the therapy dogs every week. She also said she started coming because she missed her two dogs.

“My roommates and my friends had been going for weeks before, so I went for the first time then because I thought I really needed it,” Lustyik, a nursing major, said. “And then I realized it was actually a good time to take a break from school because I don’t usually do that. I love all the dogs, so I just kept coming after that.”

Betsur said his favorite part of Therapy Dog Tuesdays is “building connections” with both the dogs and their owners.

“Just building the connections with the dogs and the parents. The therapy dog parents, they’re just lovely,” Betsur said. “Even if you’re not a part of the club or anything, they will recognize you and the dogs will remember you just by building the connections and meeting them every week. It’s honestly one of the best parts of my week, regardless of how my week is going.”

Watson O’Brien said she hopes the dogs, like Clancy,  help all of the students that visit.

“We just love doing this, and we love coming out here,” Watson O’Brien said. “We love sharing the joy and happiness that the dogs bring to everybody.”