The latest addition to the staff of Fairfield’s School of Nursing doesn’t have years of experience working in the best hospitals around the U.S., nor has she spent years studying the profession. In fact, she doesn’t even speak.
Meet Dakota, a border collie-golden retriever mix who serves as the School of Nursing’s new emotional support dog. Dakota began her work in the School of Nursing in July after her owner, Carole Pomarico, assistant professor of nursing and director of the second degree and RN to BSN program, brought her into a nursing class to see how she would react around students.
“I was doing a lot of research about dog therapy and de-stressing students with dogs, so I thought, ‘I’m going to experiment with her,’” Pomarico said on her decision to bring Dakota into the School of Nursing. “I have second degree students that have classes in the summer, so I brought her in, and she went on the elevator calmly, walked in the classroom in 203 on the second floor, I took her leash off her and she walked up and down the aisles greeting the students. And I thought, ‘This dog is a perfect dog!’”
Because of Dakota’s initial success, Pomarico decided to get Dakota certified as an emotional support dog with the United States Dog Registry. According to the registry, emotional support dogs are “dogs that provide comfort and support in forms of affection and companionship for an individual suffering from various mental and emotional conditions.”
After registering Dakota as an unspecified emotional support dog to help students cope with stress, Pomarico then sought the approval of Meredith Kazer, dean and professor of the School of Nursing and Todd Pelazza, the director of the Department of Public Safety, as well as Counseling and Psychological Services, all of whom immediately gave a green light for Dakota’s presence on campus.
Kazer said she was “thrilled” at the idea of Dakota in the School of Nursing. “I had recently lost my dog Lucy and connected with Dakota immediately. When Professor Pomarico suggested we put Dakota through the certification process to become an emotional support, I pledged my full support.”
The next step was to set up ‘office hours’ for Dakota, which were originally on Tuesdays from 2:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. and on Thursdays from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the beginning of the semester. However, Pomarico said that this initial schedule changed very quickly. “By public demand, she’s been coming into work everyday in the afternoon, and she gets requests to come before exams, to come to class just to de-stress the students if they’re really stressed out about anything,” she explained.
And according to the American Psychological Association, college students are often stressed. In their June 2013 study, they found that anxiety is a top concern among college students, representing 41.6 percent of the 319,634 represented in the survey. The National Alliance on Mental Illness shared similar survey results; when students were asked if they had experienced a mental health crisis — which is categorized by such things as feelings of anxiety and panic or stress about their course load — during their time in college, 73 percent of students said they had.
But according to Pomarico, Dakota’s job is to relieve some of the stress and anxiety that students feel. “Everyone smiles when they see Dakota, and especially around hectic times — registration time, advising time — when everyone’s all in a hurry to do things and stressed out, and they see Dakota, and all of a sudden, everyone just goes, ‘Phew, I’m calm.’”
Kazer thinks that Dakota is not only a comfort in times of stress, but also in times of grief. “When Maureen DiCostanzo, Operations Assistant in the Office of Exploratory Academic Advising, passed away suddenly on Friday morning, Nov. 13, Dakota was there to comfort the staff and students.”
Junior nursing major Catherine Petitti found that interacting with Dakota has the ability to instantly brighten students’ days. “Just being around Dakota makes you happier, so I definitely think it will change your day for the better, and it will just help you interact with other people in a more positive light. It will just cheer you up, which is always helpful,” she said.
Dakota’s calming presence can extend beyond the walls of the School of Nursing, said Sarah Rybacki ’17. “I think it would be beneficial to see her in other parts of the University, and not just the School of Nursing,” she said.
Petitti shared this sentiment, saying that she hopes to see Dakota interact with students of other majors. “Maybe she should reach out to other members of the Fairfield community with different majors, so like with engineering majors or business majors even. Maybe she can take a trip to Dolan or maybe even the library.”
Kazer has her own ideas on how Dakota’s presence will grow at Fairfield. “She’s done such a good job in her first few months, she may be ready for a promotion. In the future, perhaps [nursing] students may take her into the nursing home or community settings if this is allowed,” she said.
However, Pomarico is content with Dakota’s performance thus far and is in no rush to give her increased responsibilities. Although this semester is a trial period, Pomarico said she projects that she will continue to come to the School of Nursing everyday to interact with students. Pomarico sent an email to faculty members inviting them to request Dakota to come to their classes prior to administering their final exams, but she said, “We’ll see how that goes.”
Beyond this, Pomarico said, “I don’t have any intentions on giving her a higher level of dog therapy. She’s perfect the way she is.”
Kazer agreed, describing Dakota as an “asset” to the School of Nursing. “She is our best friend, asking nothing of us but to love her, which we already do.”
If students would like to visit Dakota in her office — her doggie bed beneath Pomarico’s desk — Dakota has office hours everyday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. in room 111 in the School of Nursing.