By Richard Burnett
With a little dance, hop, and twisty wag of his tail, Sully the goldendoodle immediately makes friends, melts hearts, and shows unbounded affection for people. And for nearly a year, he has been the star of Beacon College’s emerging therapy dog program on campus.
And now it’s official: the Smiles With Sully program is open for business.
For Beacon students, spending time with Sully helps them overcome the stress and anxiety of classes, exams, and other challenges of campus life, said owner Melissa Mayor, program founder and lead learning specialist at Beacon’s Center for Student Success.
To augment the monthly visits from PAWS Therapy Dogs, a Eustis-based nonprofit, Mayor started bringing Sully to work every day last November, with approval from Beacon administrators. From the beginning, students flocked in to meet him.
“I had so many students tell me how much they missed their pet back home,” Mayor said. “I knew this would be somewhere Sully could be a big help. And I’ve been amazed at how much it helps them to spend time with him. It can change their day, their week, or their lives.”
From hangout time to full program
What began as an informal hangout time last fall has grown into a full-time program in 2023, with dozens signing up weekly for appointments, overseen by trained interns. Mayor created the new internships, in cooperation with Beacon’s Center for Career Preparation and Bryan Cushing, assistant chair of anthrozoology.
For Charlie Ige, a first-year student from southern California, the therapy dog internship was a natural fit. After four years working full-time as a certified dog trainer after high school, she stepped into her Beacon role with ease.
“When Sully is with the students, he is always super-engaged, super-excited to be with them,” Ige said. “They’re so happy to see him. Many of them talk about their own pets back home and how Sully reminds them of their own dogs. I think it really helps them be less homesick.”
Bella Blackwell, a first-year student from Dallas, Texas, can relate. She admits to having a touch of homesickness in her first semester, especially missing her dog Joey, a maltipoo (Maltese poodle mix).
“I really love dogs, so spending time with Sully has helped me a lot with my anxiety and homesickness,” she said. “I got to play with him, get him to fetch his toys, take some selfies with him, and he licked me a few times too. That’s pretty cool because my dog Joey is a licker. All of this has helped me not miss home as much now.”
‘Can’t look at him and not smile’
Mayor said she is gratified to receive such positive reviews for Beacon’s first therapy dog program. (She noted the college also has an approval process that can allow students with physical disabilities to have their service dogs accompany them in class. Other students may also get approval to have an emotional support animal live with them.)
By starting its own therapy dog program, Beacon is part of a trend in higher education, Inside Higher Ed reports. Overall, more than 60% of U.S. colleges and universities now welcome therapy dogs on campus, and that total in growing, according to the Therapy Dog Symposium.
Given that trend, colleges have worked to develop and set standards to eliminate any confusion and clearly define what qualifies as a therapy or emotional support dog.
With Sully, however, there is no doubt. He is a registered emotional support animal, with a resume chock full of doggy education — from basic puppy training and American Kennel Club S.T.A.R. training to individual therapy dog training with a certified trainer.
At every level, he passed with flying colors, Mayor said.
“With Sully, I can see that he really lifts the spirits of our students,” she says. “So many of the students who come here have some mental health issues, it really helps to have that kind of support from an animal. So, Sully makes such a difference. I mean, you can’t look at him and not smile.”