Cocoa the Therapy Dog

Center for Health and Counseling adds Therapy Dog, Cocoa

Cocoa the Therapy Dog with Human OwnerCreighton University’s Center for Health and Counseling has added a new, furry face to its staff.  

Cocoa, a licensed therapy dog, has been added to the suite of services provided by Student Counseling Services

"I see her as a softer side, a welcoming presence for the counseling center," says Michael Kelley, PhD, a psychologist in the department. "The presence of a dog can soften the interaction (with a patient). It's a comforting thing, a way of breaking the ice and putting people at ease." 

Kelley, who has been at Creighton since 1980 and previously served as the senior director of Student Counseling Services, is Cocoa’s owner and handler. He first got the idea about using therapy dogs on campus after learning of a similar program at Loyola University Chicago. 

He began researching University policies and looking for a dog who had the right temperament to become a therapy dog. When Kelley first met Cocoa, who was a one-year-old chocolate lab at the time, she immediately showed signs of being very mellow and easily trainable.

Cocoa completed months of training and site visits to nursing homes to receive designation as a licensed therapy dog. Then, Kelley worked with the University administration to ensure all guidelines were followed to bring her to campus. 

Paws for Effect

Cocoa the dogLast year, Kelley began bringing Cocoa, who is three years old and 80 pounds, to Creighton for major events, to get the dog comfortable with campus. It was clear from the start that Cocoa loved receiving attention from students, and students enjoyed seeing a dog, Kelley says.  

In the spring 2017 semester, Kelley started the program Paws to Talk, through which Cocoa visited the Skutt Student Center. That program resumed in January.

Also in January, the dog started coming to Kelley's office a few days a week, wearing a vest that says "therapy dog" and has some Creighton patches on it.

"She knows she's going to Creighton when she gets that vest on," Kelley says.  

There are several policies and protocols in place to keep the Student Health Services offices clean and dog-free, Kelley says.

When not at an event or being involved in a counseling session, Cocoa stays in Kelley's office in the Harper Center, where she snoozes on a mat or sits in front of a small space heater. The department also has a kennel for Cocoa to go in when there are departmental meetings.  

Counselors in the department can request Cocoa attend a session with a patient, if they think the dog's presence will help.

So far, students who have met Cocoa during counseling sessions seem to really enjoy the dog's presence, Kelley says. Sometimes, if a patient is distraught or doesn’t want to talk, having a dog in the sessions can provide a physical comfort and give the counselor and patient a jumping-off point for conversation.  

"Our students come from homes where they have dogs," Kelley says. "This is a friendly accommodation to them, some hands-on interaction with a therapy dog." 

In addition to increasing her availability, Cocoa will also gradually become the "spokesdog" for Student Counseling Services.

"She's beginning to be recognized more around campus," Kelley says. "It can be a way to communicate with students, to give advice about stress management, for example, and attribute it to her."