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May 1, 2020

Jake is often a welcome support when students face discussion of serious medical issues.

Therapy animals are becoming increasingly recognized by medical science for the benefits they provide – and some Gannon University nursing students need only step into their classroom to agree.

For three semesters, Charlotte Riddle, D.N.P., has taught a senior-level nursing class that often involves heavy discussion around mental health disorders. She brings her therapy dog, an English cream golden retriever named Jake, to classes on these days to offer support to her students.

“Having a therapy dog in the room is an alternative way of managing and dealing with stress,” Riddle said. “These students are walking into a course that covers topics like mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, depression and sexual assault, and they have to finish the course to graduate.”

For some students, these discussions can invoke emotions from personal experiences.

Sara Gillespie, a senior nursing student in Riddle’s class, said Jake’s presence is a comfort when discussing heavier topics.

“Jake can tell when the class is getting somber,” Gillespie said. “He will walk around to everyone and allow us to pet him. Being able to pet Jake makes everything OK no matter how hard the subject.” Gillespie added that Jake was also helpful on testing days by calming the nerves in the room.

For senior Katie Thompson, Jake is a reminder of her own English cream golden at home. Thompson said she doesn’t get to visit often, so having a “Jake fix” is a bright spot in her week.

Riddle said having a dog in the classroom helps to buffer some of the stress students go through in a week that could affect their learning outcomes as future nurses. “For every student who sits in a classroom, we only know a piece of their story,” she said. “Jake opens the door to conversations that might otherwise not take place.” The CDC outlines many health benefits of a dog including decreased blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, as well as an ability to manage loneliness, depression and stress.

Many students on Gannon’s campus have attested to these health benefits, thanks to Riddle and her dog. The pair frequently attend campus events including a pancake breakfast before finals week and Send Silence Packing, a public education exhibit to raise awareness of mental health and suicide on campuses.

Riddle said bringing a therapy dog into the classroom also gives students a unique perspective on how nurses can take a more holistic approach to promoting well-being among patients.

“Preparing future nurses with knowledge about mental health helps us provide the best care possible to our future patients,” Thompson said.

Riddle recalls one particular moment that has remained for her a testimony of Jake’s impactful work. She was teaching an especially heavy topic, and Jake was laying in front of the class as he often did.

“Fifteen minutes into this class,” Riddle said, “Jake stood up, walked to the very back of the classroom, wrapped himself around the chair of a student, and didn’t move the rest of the three-hour class. When class ended, the student walked him back up to the front and asked a single question: ‘How did he know?’”

Riddle said she left the room ingrained with a message of hope: “There is something that helps for whatever you need to get through in life. We all experience things that we need to work very hard to overcome. If it’s just Jake’s presence that a student needs to overcome something and be able to achieve goals and dreams, that’s what’s important,” she said.

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