By Laura E. Smallwood
Ambassador Dan Smith, director of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), announced the first official therapy dog program as a permanent fixture on FSI’s campus, April 11. The announcement followed a highly popular pilot initiative created by FSI’s Wellness and Resilience Committee, in partnership with FSI’s Transition Center and School of Language Studies.
While a sanctioned therapy animal program is new for the Department of State, the use of animals to help humans calm anxiety, recover from trauma and offer needed companionship during illness has been in practice since the time of the ancient Greeks. The use of horses, to lift the spirits of the chronically or terminally ill, has been recorded as far back as 600 B.C. Over the ages, animals have served to improve the lives of humans; however, it has only been in the past 40 years that organizations have started to certify therapy animal teams and welcome them into places of business, medical centers and academic institutes. Trained and certified therapy animal teams have proven effective in reducing anxiety and stress among military service members in combat zones, veterans returning home, patients in hospice and their families, and college students during final examinations.
Predicated on the research of animal-assisted interventions from major universities and medical centers including the Veterans Administration, therapy animal programs have shown that animal interactions have a range of benefits for humans. A few minutes with a therapy dog can lower a person’s blood pressure and heart rate allowing for better executive functioning; provide emotional support in the form of a friendly environment that removes competition in high-pressure situations; and offer a space and time for a shared connection, which promotes empathy, respect and positivity. Specifically for students, human-animal interactions can enhance a student’s resilience, improve testing performance and reduce the burden of emotional and cognitive fatigue often associated with intense learning environments.
First conceptualized for FSI’s language students, the therapy dog program initially sought to mitigate the stress associated with foreign language testing. FSI recognized that new language acquisition and tests are challenging for students transitioning to onward assignments and can be especially difficult for those returning from high-threat environments. Successful completion of a complex foreign language exam can also cause high levels of stress and anxiety, especially when time frames and other required training loom heavy on one’s mind.
Test anxiety and general apprehension around the testing procedures often impair a student’s performance, resulting in lower test scores that are not representative of the student’s language skills in a more conventional environment. Due to the inherently stressful nature of the exam, a student may have to retest, which entails further training and readjusting time frames for all that follows. These delays can present a scheduling and staffing problem for FSI, the students and their families, and the onward post.
Evaluation data collected during the one-year pilot indicated that the therapy dog program has benefited both staff and students by fostering emotional well-being and social interaction and directly countering the normal stresses associated with any learning institution. Attendees provided feedback and shared their experience anonymously.
In a day filled with foreign words and sounds, one attendee noted that visiting the therapy dog “was probably the most productive break I’ve taken during language training.”
Another said, “I was having a whirlwind of a day that I wasn’t sure I was going to survive until I saw that wagging tail.”
Another attendee said the interaction provided a much-needed mental respite: “Even on days when I’m doing okay, I like to visit. Plus, it becomes a bit of a watercooler spot to chat with colleagues and talk through our stresses, laugh and connect with each other.”
The regular dog visits have proven popular far beyond the language school, with approximately 50-60 staff and students from across FSI taking advantage of each two-hour visit. Some stay long enough for just a few belly rubs, while others spend their entire break interacting with the dog, the handler and other visitors. By expanding the program to serve the greater FSI community, beyond the confines of language learning, the regular dog visits contribute to creating optimal conditions for all to perform to their potential, simultaneously improving workforce morale and productivity.
All the therapy dog teams at FSI are volunteers with nationally recognized therapy animal organizations such as Pet Partners and Therapy Dogs International. These organizations require their volunteer teams to complete regular testing to remain certified and have a lengthy list of health and hygiene requirements. The various therapy dogs have become recognizable celebrities for many across campus. On program days, visitors approaching the Grove Atrium, call the dogs by name and approach with excitement. The dogs and handlers also enjoy the opportunity to volunteer at such a unique institution.
This initiative would not have come to fruition without champions across FSI and the Department who were willing to give this high-stakes, high-impact program an opportunity to prove its worth. By institutionalizing the therapy dog program, FSI leadership is actively fostering a sense of community and well-being for staff and students alike.
Laura E. Smallwood is a division director at the Foreign Service Institute’s Transition Center and the therapy dog program coordinator.