Therapy Dogs Adapt to Social Distancing

Therapy Dogs Adapt to Social Distancing

By Erik Kjer, News Editor & Kayde Moore, Head Copy Editor Originally published in Issue 6, Volume 33 of The University Register on November 20, 2020

Morris students have been missing the familiar furry faces of Hank and Mercer, the two therapy dogs that have frequented campus every couple of weeks in years past. This year due to COVID-19, the doggie duo is holding off on their in-person college visits. We contacted their handler, Tammy Roth, to check up on them. Like all of us they have needed to adapt to a world dominated by social distancing, but are still busy providing support to the community.

Mercer’s twelfth birthday happened just after students went home for the semester in March. Usually, students at UMM are a part of the birthday celebrations, but this year there could not be a student party.

“When he turned ten, we had cookies and doggie cupcakes and all that,” said Roth. “He missed it with the college students, but he did have some doggie friends.” Summer brought additional changes to the dogs’ lifestyle.

In a typical year, the dogs would regularly make appearances at the library for children’s book readings, but social distancing meant these activities needed to go online.

“We have some YouTube videos of Mercer and Hank doing stories in front of the library, and we also have some of their doggy friends read stories on our YouTube channel that people could tune into and listen to, if college kids are wanting to listen to children storybooks,” said Roth.

Although the dogs have not been visiting campus, they have been stopping in at the Morris Area Elementary School. Things are different this year, but Roth has still found ways for the kids to interact with the dogs and learn positive mental health practices.

“Coming back to school was a little bit different. They haven’t seen as many kids as they usually do,” Roth said. “They do go into kindergarten and first grade. However, when we go in there everybody has to wash their hands at the sink, and then they get to do some quick pets and talk to the dogs. When I do individual counseling here at the elementary school, they’re still getting to interact with Mercer and Hank; the kids will either come in with their hands washed or we do hand sanitizer right at the door. We’d do a lot of things outside, so long as the weather was really nice. We’d go outside and do walks with Mercer and Hank or throwing the ball or the frisbee. You know, things to get good coping skills for the kids to change what’s going on with your mind at different times when they come in to see the counselor.”

Although the high school has switched to entirely online learning, Morris Area Elementary School continues to have hybrid classes and students appear to be succeeding in the new environment.

“The elementary kids have been really good; they want to be here and they want to stay safe. We have ‘germ juice’ (hand sanitizer) when the kids come into the classroom. Then they are really good about keeping their distance,” Roth said. “With kindergarteners and first graders, it’s a little bit harder because they want to interact and be next to their buddies, but there’s just those reminders by the classroom teacher, you know let’s stay apart, that sort of thing. Learning to cover noses with face masks has been a big thing for the elementary kids, but they are working on that. There are constant reminders that those little masks slip down but they’re constantly pulling them up.”

Despite everything parents and teachers have done, the pandemic can and does still affect the elementary students.

“In the beginning of October, I went into all the classrooms. We did lessons on the coronavirus and they had some interaction,” said Roth. “We had an online classroom where they had different things that they could look at and learn about and we talked about worrying and the kids all admitted, yep, they’re worried and they’re scared. They’re worried about Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa, those sorts of things, but they’re doing okay and they’re talking about it and they understand the importance of personal safety and that that’s where they have control.”

With University students wrapping up the semester and approaching finals week, they may be feeling a lack of control themselves, and we asked Tammy if she had any advice.

“I know that’s a struggle being a college student going into finals, and now you’re really hitting the books, but it really is important to get that sleep, get proper nutrition, get outside and get some sunshine,” she said. “We all need that Vitamin D and that’s going to help you, not just with depression and anxiety but also it’s good to feed your body those important nutrients that you would need if you get sick.”

In addition to maintaining our bodies, Roth reminded us that it’s also important to monitor our own mental health.

“You can have that mask break,” she said. “When kids go outside at the elementary school with Mercer and Hank, they get to have a mask break. [It’s important to be] doing things that you enjoy, making sure that you’re having a laugh now and then. [Whether that involves] doing your surfing, or watching TikTok, or going down that rabbit hole on YouTube. That’s okay. Every now and then, all of those things that we need to do in the past, we really need to do now to practice good mental health.”

And finally, we are most likely heading into the most difficult period of the COVID-19 pandemic and we all have a responsibility to each other to try and stop or slow the spread of the disease.

“We know that the 18 to 35 group is the group that’s most at risk right now. If we can have kindergarteners and first graders [practice COVID precautions], you can do it as well,” Roth said. “[I know oftentimes] you want to be your own person and independent and you don’t want to follow others’ rules, but this is one of those situations where we were all in the same boat and we have to work together.”

Hank and Mercer are @HANKTnZ and @ MercerTnZ on Facebook, Tammy’s YouTube channel featuring the dogs and children’s book readings is Counselor Tammy, we’re including QR codes to all three below.

Photo on top courtesy of Tammy Roth