The Star of the Counseling and Testing Center

Star is a three-year-old poodle and Australian shepherd mix. She can normally be found in the WKU Counseling and Testing Center where she works as a therapy dog. 

Griffin Fletcher

The WKU Counseling and Testing Center features one of few on-campus animal-assisted therapy dogs, an Australian Shepherd and poodle mix named Star. Now 3 years old, Star has worked at the CTC since she was 7 weeks old.

CTC Outreach Coordinator and therapist Betsy Pierce lives with Star and serves as her primary handler. Pierce said in an email that Star is a great asset to the CTC, serving “to reduce anxiety for the client through her presence and interaction, thereby making communication easier in the therapy setting.”

“[She] is a great way to meet people and start conversations about the Center, who she is, and what we do,” Pierce said. “In that way, she is a living advertisement for our services.”

Pierce said Star works with CTC clients at their request, typically sitting in on at least 10 therapy sessions per week. Just last year alone, Star worked with 742 students, Pierce said.

Pierce said Star most often interacts with students by sitting near them and remaining calm during therapy sessions.

“A typical interaction with a client involves the initial greeting of talking and petting, then Star will usually sit beside the client during the therapy session,” Pierce said. “Star works with all therapists in our office.”

Though Star works with all clients who request her services, Pierce said Star is typically sought out by clients who suffer from various forms of anxiety and depression. Pierce said she hopes Star may continue to aid the CTC for years to come.

“For the future we plan to continue to be of service to students who seek help with mental/emotional challenges, and thereby aid them in succeeding at college,” Pierce said. “As Star is only [3], she hopefully has several more years to be a working dog with us!”

Star’s co-handler and CTC Sexual Assault Services Coordinator Elizabeth Madariaga said in an  email that Star helps make the CTC a welcoming and comfortable space for her ability to “provide almost an automatic calming” to any situation.

“She is such a breath of fresh air at the center,” Madariaga said. “She is very empathic and can really sense when someone needs a hug or needs her to be around so they can pet on her.”

Outside of the CTC, Madariaga said Star is just like any other dog. She said one of Star’s favorite things to do while home is relax and spend time with her cat, Hays.

“She has a great disposition that makes her a fantastic therapy dog, but she is still a dog,” Madariaga said. “Hays and her are the greatest of buddies. It’s really awesome to observe.”

As an animal-assisted therapy dog, Star was trained at nonprofit dog training center Pawsabilities Unleashed in Frankfort. Founded in 2006 by Liz Norris, an Air Force accredited certified professional dog trainer, Pawsabilities trains between 400-500 dogs per year.

Pawsabilities Treasurer and trainer Tracey Hagan said the center takes in and trains dogs from all over the country, often to fit the needs of clients in need of specially trained service dogs. Hagan said the center trains dogs for various qualifications.

“There’s a lot of things that these dogs can do to help people,” Hagan said.

Hagan said most dogs trained at Pawsabilities undergo a six-week obedience course and 10 required hours of therapy session work. She said dogs trained at Pawsabilities’ facility are trained through positive reinforcement only.

As well as serving as a dog training center, Hagan said Pawsabilities often rescues dogs from shelters and operates as an adoption center when dogs are deemed unfit for service or therapy work. The center also frequently participates in events through Norton’s Children’s Hospital and local school programs.

Hagan said the center’s main goal is to aid others in getting the help service dogs provide, no matter the obstacles.

“We’re just trying to help as many people as we can,” Hagan said. “Sometimes that’s not possible, but we’re going to keep trying.”

Along with training service dogs, which are allowed unlimited public access and are trained to help people with disabilities, Hagan said Pawsabilities trains animal-assisted therapy and emotional support dogs. Animal-assisted therapy dogs are trained to help others in therapy situations, and emotional support dogs are trained primarily to provide comfort. Animal-assisted therapy and emotional support dogs are not allowed unlimited public access.

Animals other than dogs may serve as emotional support animals. Many students request to have such animals live with them in their dorms.

Requests for emotional support animals must be approved through the WKU Student Accessibility Resource Center and substantiated with a documented medical diagnosis and recommendation. Assistant Director of Student Services Matt Davis said “students who have been diagnosed in some type of anxiety or depression or post-traumatic stress disorder” most often file requests.

Davis said most requests are made to help minimize diagnoses symptoms and that emotional support animals are permissible on campus under the Fair Housing Act. He said WKU Housing and Residence Life ultimately decides whether or not a student may have a service animal.

Assistant Director for Student Behavior and Conduct Daniel Rosner said students who have requests approved by the SARC are then asked by Housing to compete and sign its Emotional Support Animal Agreement. The agreement ensures an animal is properly vaccinated and states it is only permitted to be in its owner’s room. Animals must be leashed or carried in a crate when taken to other areas of the dorm.

Since taking his position three semesters ago, Rosner said he has dealt with 60 to 70 cases in which a student was approved to have an emotional support animal. Per the Fair Housing Act, within reason, Rosner said almost any animal may be considered an emotional support animal.

Though Rosner said an emotional support animal may be a positive addition to its owner’s recover treatment plan, he said he often warns students of the responsibility and time requirement necessary in properly caring for such an animal.

Rosner said students interested in living with an emotional support animal should first contact the SARC.

Additionally, the CTC offers individual and personal counseling, meeting with students for a variety of concerns like depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship problems, eating disorders, stress and suicide risk. There is a one-time-only fee of $20 to receive therapy sessions.

Reporter Griffin Fletcher can be reached at 270-745-2655 and [email protected].