counseling centerMeet the Counseling Center’s shaggy ‘ambassador’

Everybody knows about Cassie,” a Saint Joseph’s College freshman says, referring to the gentle Golden Retriever that greeted her as she entered the Counseling Center. “For me, that’s why I first came in here.”

As she spoke, the student rubbed Cassie’s ears and graying muzzle and lovingly stroked the dog’s fur.

Maureen (her name has been changed to protect her privacy) said she first visited the center to meet Cassie because she missed the pets that she had to leave at home. But when she realized she needed to seek professional help for some personal problems, knowing the center’s tail-wagging chief publicist would be there to support her made it much easier for her to take that first step.

Dubbed an “ambassador” by center director Dr. Liz Wiesen, Cassie provides a welcome and calming diversion for students who may feel awkward, embarrassed, or even fearful over their decision to visit a counselor.

“Having her in here can be disarming to students and can help assuage some anxiety, especially for those who are coming in for the first time,” Wiesen said. “I think that can comfort students and make them feel safe and less intimidated.”

Cassie gave Maureen a focus and a purpose in the waiting room – lavishing attention on the dog was a way to avoid locking eyes with other, unfamiliar students. And, as Cassie got to know her better, Maureen said the dog would sense her mood and greet her accordingly.

“She definitely has a sense,” Maureen said. “If I come in and I’m having a bad day she immediately stands up and comes over to me; and if I’m having a really good day, she makes me do the work, like she’ll lie down and roll over.”

Cassie’s personality and playful nature have made her the sweetheart of the center. She enjoys parading back and forth with a “stolen” mitten or hat in her mouth, waiting until someone notices before dropping it gently on the floor. She sniffs out fruit from students’ backpacks. And she loves the stuffed animals she often receives from staff members.

Wiesen’s colleague, David Lischer, is 13-year-old Cassie’s owner. He began bringing the dog to work with him about 10 years ago. Though she remained at home for a couple of years after a change in the college’s policy prohibited dogs on campus, Cassie came out of retirement a few years ago when college president Joseph Lee recognized her therapeutic value.

Studies have demonstrated the positive effects of animal-assisted therapy in treating many conditions, from cancer patients to sexual abuse survivors. And documented studies suggest animal therapy is useful in treating depression in college students, Wiesen says.

Cassie may be the big draw, but Wiesen has made a concerted effort in the 11 years she’s been at the school to make the center’s services more accessible and more acceptable to students. The informal, sunny space in Saint Joseph’s Hall is replete with comfortable chairs, knick-knacks for nervous hands to play with and the comforting warmth of tea and coffee. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung action figures adorn opposite sides of Wiesen’s office. Wiesen and Lischer dress casually, and students are free to call them by their first names.

Though the setting is casual, the center’s mission is not. Wiesen and Lischer work to educate resident assistants, faculty and staff on how to recognize symptoms of students in distress and how to encourage those students to access help.

When advertising the center’s services, Wiesen uses a combination of playful promotional materials and more serious marketing. Their efforts are paying off. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of students who access the center has doubled and the number of friends referring friends is up, Wiesen says.

And through it all, Cassie was there – without an agenda, without expectations and without judgment – just ready to love unconditionally anyone who walks through the door.

Note: Not long after this article was written, Cassie passed away. The editor decided to run the story as written in order to honor her legacy in the campus community.

By Peggy Roberts