News>Feature - Puppy love: Therapy dog eases cadets' worries
From left: Cadet 3rd Class Mercedes Dexter, Maj. Nicholas Marshall and Cadet 3rd Class J. Downs pose with Lulu, an 8-month-old therapy dog, in the Air Force Academy Terrazzo April 16, 2012. Marshall is Lulu's owner and the director of the Academy's Peak Performance Center, which provides cadets with therapy for life stresses like homesickness, test anxiety or relationship issues. Dexter is assigned to Cadet Squadron 32, and Downs is assigned to CS 40. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Chambers)
Lulu says hello to Cadet 3rd Class Mercedes Dexter after catching the scent of her lip gloss in the Air Force Academy's Peak Performance Center April 16, 2012. Lulu is an 8-month-old lab-weimaraner mix owned by the center's director, Maj. Nicholas Marshall. Dexter is assigned to Cadet Squadron 32. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Chambers)
Lulu, an 8-month-old therapy dog, tilts her head toward the camera as she rests on her bed at the Air Force Academy's Peak Performance Center April 16, 2012. The Peak Performance Center provides cadets with therapy for life stresses. In the background is Maj. Nicholas Marshall, the center's director and Lulu's owner. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sarah Chambers)
4/23/2012 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- There is a friendly new face at the Peak Performance Center. She loves long walks, a competitive game of fetch and might expect a belly rub when you walk through the door.
Her name is Lulu, and she is a spunky, eight month old weimaraner-lab mix who adds a playful, canine twist to therapy. She was adopted by the center's director, Maj. Nicholas Marshall, and she has been a therapy dog at the Academy since January.
"She's a therapy dog as far as providing the ability for cadets to feel more relaxed when they're here," Marshall said. "If they're in crisis or dealing with a really significant problem, Lulu can go into the session with them, they can stroke her and feel more comfortable while talking about whatever it is they're struggling with."
The PPC is a counseling center that provides therapy for life stresses such as if a cadet is homesick, stressed about a test or has broken up with their significant other.
"If someone comes in and they have a significant problem like depression, we often refer them to mental health," Marshall said. "The average amount of visits per client is between two and five and then usually they're much better."
Any cadet, whether a client or not, is welcome to visit Lulu and can take her on a walk, play ball with her or take her back to their squadron.
"I love dogs, and I have five at home," said Cadet 3rd Class Mercedes Dexter of Cadet Squadron 32. "To have a dog here is really nice, especially if you miss your animals back home and can't see them very often. Lulu takes my attention off whatever else I'm focusing on and is well-behaved for a puppy."
Marshall oversees counseling care that's provided to cadets and decides what procedures need to be done better or differently. Marshall said he wants to change the culture of the center and would like for it to be associated with relaxation and enjoyment, not just depression.
That's when Marshall rescued Lulu. He adopted her for the center and picked her up from the pound at just six weeks old.
"I'm a social worker, so I'm familiar with research that shows having pets in an environment can relax people and reduce stress," Marshall said. "We've also seen an increase in the number of people coming in to get help. I can't say that it's a 100-percent correlation with her being here, but ultimately, she's very helpful whether it's to get people here or simply make visitors happy."
As a part of Marshall's research, he visited Fort Carson to speak with individuals from the Wounded Warrior Program about their two therapy dogs. The experience helped give him a better idea of how Lulu could benefit the Academy.
Marshall said cadets will often stop by just to see Lulu.
"When cadets see her, regardless if they're depressed or stressed out, they light up," Marshall said. "When they walk through those doors and see her, it's a big deal and I think her calm and chilled temperament is perfect for this."
Cadet 3rd Class J. Downs of CS 40 visited Lulu last week after he was in a serious car accident.
"It's cool that Lulu loves you unconditionally. She doesn't care about anything and just wants to be petted," Downs said. "I visited her to take my mind off things, and I love that she doesn't have expectations and just wants attention."
Marshall said that with a therapy dog at the Academy, it helps break through the institutional feeling and brings more of a homey spirit.
"It helps break up the monotony because we live where we work and play," Dexter said. "She's super calm, so people who might have a fear of dogs shouldn't worry because she's very chill for a puppy. Her calmness puts people at ease."
For those with pet allergies, a sign notifies clients before they enter the center that a dog is present. Marshall also keeps Lulu updated on her vaccines.
"There are a lot of people who love dogs at the Academy and everyone I've talked to has agreed that it's a good idea," Downs said. "I haven't heard one negative thing about her."
Dexter said therapy dogs should be implemented in more treatment centers.
"You'll see them in children's hospitals and nursing homes," Dexter said. "I've read articles where soldiers will find puppies in Afghanistan and adopt them because they develop this great bond with them. A lot of soldiers have dogs at home and they miss them because they miss that unconditional love, loyalty and bond that is a huge stress reliever."
Another provider at the center plans to bring in her dog, a Belgian shepherd, to replace Lulu when Marshall leaves in August.
"I wish I could stay longer, but that's how the military goes," Marshall said. "I'm really hoping that her dog can help here, and wherever I end up next, I hope that Lulu can do the same there."
5/15/2012 3:22:23 PM ET Great Story I am a therapy dog handler too. Glad to see that you have found niche there.
Donna Hartnett, Robins AFB
4/23/2012 3:46:35 PM ET That's why God invented dogs.