By | Laura Billings Coleman

It takes a few months for most first years to start feeling at home at Macalester, but from the moment he stepped onto campus this fall, one newcomer was on a first-name basis with nearly everyone he met.

“Kevin’s like a celebrity. When you walk with him, everyone’s calling his name and rushing over to him— ‘Kevin is here! Kevin is here!’” says Emma Swanson ’16 (Ypsilanti, Mich.). “During move-in weekend he must have met 200 people. Everyone just loves him.”

All of that squealing, shouting, and selfie-snapping could easily go to a guy’s head, but Kevin’s closest companions report that in spite of his BMOC status, he’s still managing to keep his feet firmly on the ground. All four of them.

Kevin’s clear head and approving swagger are all part of the training this three-year-old Golden Retriever has received at the hands of his owner and trainer, Stephanie Walters, Macalester’s medical director. Her 85-pound purebred is a certified therapy dog, originally trained to work as a reading dog in elementary schools, offering tail-wagging encouragement to young learners sounding out new literacy skills.

But as Walters and her colleagues at Mac’s Health and Wellness Center (HWC) have been faced with a steadily rising demand for counseling services, off-campus therapy referrals, and other stress-reduction resources, they began to wonder whether Kevin might be cut out for work in higher education.

“I’d leave the house in the morning knowing that this wonderful therapy dog would be spending the day looking out the window, while every day I’m talking to students who are dealing with real stress, sadness, homesickness, and anxiety,” says Walters. Studies show that simply petting a beloved animal can trigger a wave of positive brain and bodily responses, boosting calming compounds like oxytocin, and lowering the stress hormone cortisol, a chemical actor in anxiety—now the top mental health complaint of college students nationwide.

As an experiment, the HWC team has put Kevin to work this year, pairing him with four trained student handlers who accompany him on his twice-weekly “rounds.” Modeling his role on a larger such initiative at the University of Minnesota called “Petting Away Worry and Stress,” Kevin has been appearing at orientation sessions and wellness-training groups, greeting students in his stride, and submitting to all manner of belly rubs, paw shakes, and ear scratches.  He even has his own Instagram account (@pawsatmac), and, like other campus therapists, maintains regular office hours at the Leonard Center, offering his soulful brown eyes to slumping sophomores, and comic relief to chemistry majors trying to breathe deeply between labs.

While Kevin’s campus gig is still a pet project, Walters believes he’s already filling a necessary niche in the growing menu of mental health services Macalester provides for its students. “He’s a dog, of course, but he really is a fantastic listener.”

October 8 2015

Back to top