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Puppy love: How one dog is changing lives

Pet Posse

Ashley Walters plays with Charlie. Charlie is a German shepard mix and is a member of Pete’s Pet Posse, which is a group of therapy dogs that helps those dealing with stress and grief among other reasons. The dogs on campus help students and faculty members relax.

Her mom died about a month ago, but because of a dog, her spirits did not.

Amanda Slife is coping with her mother’s death through Charlie, a German shepherd mix in Pete’s Pet Posse whose unconditional love is helping to wash her troubles away.

P3 is a group of 22 therapy dogs at Oklahoma State University that helps students who are dealing with stress, frustrations and other mental health issues such as, in Slife’s case, grief.

Slife, an animal science and veterinary medicine junior, grew up around several kinds of animals. She was a foster child, and her mother worked at a veterinary clinic for 30 years. If animals went unclaimed, her mother took them in. Thanks to her mom, Slife has been around animals all her life.

Because of Slife’s lifelong experience with animals, Charlie seemed the perfect fit to cope with her mother’s death, and he was.

“He’s definitely my favorite,” Slife said. “He doesn't care if he’s never seen you before or if he’s seen you a million times, he’ll greet you the same no matter what. He just loves to be loved on, and he has changed my life.”

Charlie is one of the P3 program’s most popular dogs. He connects with more than 1,000 people every year, according to P3’s impact tracker records, but he remembers students. He embraces them and can sense when they are in need of support, mainly because he has been in their position, too.

Charlie’s owner, Kendria Cost, rescued him after he showed up at Cost’s house one day, she said. Cost never planned to keep Charlie; she tried everything from posters to social media campaigns to find him a home, she said, but nothing worked until a child of the owners drove past Cost and Charlie walking on the side of the road.

Once contact information was traded, Cost decided to give Charlie back, she said, but Charlie didn’t want to go back.

“Two days later, I got up and looked out the window, and he was sitting on my deck,” Cost said. “At that point, I decided I was not giving him back, that he wasn’t being cared for properly.”

Cost took Charlie to the vet and had his disposition checked to see if he would qualify to become a therapy dog, and he did.

Charlie’s life purpose is to be a therapy dog, Cost said. The excitement shared between Charlie and students such as Slife is a powerful display of emotion, Cost said.

“I really think it was meant to be for Charlie,” Cost said. “He loves coming to campus and kind of has his own little fan club.”

Like Slife, Ashley Walters, a fisheries and aquatic ecology sophomore, is a member of Charlie’s fan club.

Walters isn’t judged when she goes to see Charlie or any of the other P3 dogs, she said; she feels only happiness. Her stress melts away with Charlie, she said. Charlie is a special dog; he remembers Walters in a crowded room, and feeling wanted, though only for a moment, is something she will never forget, she said.

“You don’t have to put thought into it,” Walters said. “You don’t have to set aside a certain amount of time to do a program. If you only have five minutes between classes, then that still helps with the stress. It helps to relax you.”

Another therapy dog at OSU, Evie, works alongside Charlie and came to the P3 program through a similar path. Like Charlie, Evie was rescued, her owner said. Evie was a stray dog and was taken to the Shawnee Animal Shelter after a tornado ripped through the city May 19, 2013, Lorinda Schrammel said.

The tornado leveled Evie's morale. She was gentle and timid when Schrammel came to see her, but Evie’s temperament made her a perfect candidate for therapy work, so Schrammel took her in, she said. After Evie was certified, she and Charlie became the first two dogs in P3, a program Evie was meant for, Schrammel said.

Evie has suffered plenty, Schrammel said, but as she has gotten through her struggles, she has discovered a new way to seek out students who are having problems.

“Her favorite thing, besides chasing squirrels, is to be on this campus,” Schrammel said. “She absolutely loves to be around students and help in whatever way she can.”

Charlie, Evie and the P3 dogs go through an “intense” training regimen to become therapy certified, Schrammel said.

For a dog to earn therapy certification, the handler needs to have taken training classes, which cost $300 and last more than six weeks, the approval from the handler’s department head if he or she works at OSU and a $40 yearly fee to renew the certification.

“Just to see how many people that we’ve crossed paths with and how many hours we’ve spent, it’s completely out of whack,” Schrammel said. “We have a lot more contacts than the time we’ve spent, and that’s the point. How many people are we impacting is really what the point is.”

As the program earns more recognition, reaching more people in need, the number of P3 dogs is reaching 30 and has spread beyond Stillwater to the OSU campus in Tulsa.

Jerimy Sherin is one of the handlers who recently connected his dog, Liam, with the program to help students struggling with mental health.

Liam’s morale has improved because of the hundreds of people he has impacted, Sherin said.

“People just flock to him,” Sherin said. “He loves to just sit there and be petted, and he loves the attention, but he also loves to give it back. I believe that’s his purpose, and all dogs are searching for a purpose.”

With handlers such as Cost, Schrammel and Sherin connecting struggling students with dogs trained to handle stress, Cost said P3 is changing students’ lives.

“Dogs love unconditionally,” she said. “It’s a piece of home that some students miss a lot. … It’s a way for students to see a furry little creature and bend down and just get even a quick pet.”