Our Communications Manager, Katie M. Kanagawa, interviewed Executive Director of Finance and Administration, Martha Kessler, about her work with Stanford Pet Partners, a program that hosts biweekly virtual dog therapy sessions to provide people and dogs with much-needed support during the pandemic.
Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself? How did you get here (to Stanford Epidemiology & Population Health)?
I have worked at Stanford in the School of Medicine for a little over 21 years. I have been with the Department of Health Research and Policy, which morphed into the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, for about 20 years as the Director of Finance and Administration and then as the Executive Director of Finance and Administration. I am also responsible for the Basic Science Shared Services Consortium, the Center for Population Health Sciences and the Department of Structural Biology. In the past 20 years, I have also been responsible for Spectrum/CTSA as well as stepped in to help in Anatomy, Biomedical Data Science and other units around the School of Medicine.
I understand you serve as the volunteer coordinator of virtual dog therapy sessions and that you are working in partnership with Stanford Health Care’s PAWS Program. Can you tell us a bit about this program and how it got started?
For over 5 years, I have served as the Pet Partner dog therapy team coordinator around Stanford University. I coordinate Pet Partners- certified dog and handler teams to visit various schools and units around campus. In most cases, we schedule a monthly visit with schools on campus as well as do one-off visits to libraries, dorms, Be Well events and postdoc events, at their request. We have typically done about 5-8 visits a month. The visits are intended to provide stress relief and relaxation to anyone who comes out to pet the dogs. There is compelling research that suggests petting a therapy animal can reduce stress. Sometimes it is just a nice break in the day for students, staff and faculty. At some schools, even the deans come out to pet the dogs!
The hospital has always had its own (PAWS) program that consists of the dogs doing in-room patient visits as well as hospital staff visits. These teams are also certified by the therapy dog organization, Pet Partners. Many of the dogs/handlers do both university and hospital visits.
Once the pandemic hit, both programs were shut down from doing in-person visits. After about a month of doing nothing, I decided to try a zoom visit with the dogs on camera. The hospital and I decided that it would be best if we collaborate on the zoom visits instead of each of us trying to accomplish on our own. Once we did a few of the zoom visits and it was wildly popular, I set up the visits to be every other week. This schedule is still what we are doing today. Every other Thursday at 4pm, anywhere from 8-14 dogs get on camera for 45 minutes. The viewers can ask questions of the dogs/handlers and we can sometimes get some of the dogs to do tricks. The program has its own Instagram page that advertises the dates and zoom link: #stanfordpetpartners.
What do you think makes this program especially important at this particular point in time? What do you hope to accomplish, on an individual or larger scale, with this virtual dog therapy program?
Folks are under a lot of stress during this time. We have a wide variety of attendees from around campus and the healthcare system who tune into the zoom webinar. In some cases, it is stress relief, and in others, it is just a time that you can spend enjoying dogs on camera. We have a lot of repeats who tune in every session. I think the dogs also provide some support for those that are isolated or alone.
What does a typical dog therapy session look like? How do visitors and dogs generally interact?
Typically, we start the session introducing each dog and what kind of therapy work they normally do. This can range from reading programs to crisis work. We then answer questions that the viewers might have. Sometimes, these questions are about favorite treats, programs they do, training, how to become a therapy dog, what are they doing during COVID, etc. We usually end with a few of the dogs doing a trick or two. We have a couple of dogs who can demonstrate flashcard reading. Occasionally, we will have a guest puppy join us as well. I am currently working on having a baby goat join in the next month or so.
What has driven you to do this work? What have you loved most, or found the most rewarding, about it?
I have been a therapy dog team with my oldest dog Oliver for ten years. My younger dog, Tucker, has been a therapy dog for 3. We have loved working with kids in a reading program as well as all of the University work we get to do. It is very rewarding to provide some stress relief to students, staff and faculty.
I am also a certified animal-assisted crisis response team with Oliver through HOPE AACR. This is like a PhD of therapy dog work. We have been to many wildfire crisis centers to provide comfort and support to victims of the wildfires in Northern California every year since the Clearlake fires. I believe it helps calm and help the victims focus on getting the help they need from FEMA, Red Cross and the like that are at these assistance centers. We also have spent time with the first responders firefighters at their base camp. As they come off the fire line, we have been there to provide some relief to them as well. This work is very intense, but incredibly rewarding to provide some stress relief at a time when someone is in a crisis. If only for a few moments, they can pet, hug and kiss a dog who is not judging or expecting anything of them.
Do you have a favorite memory or experience from working on this program that you could tell us about?
I have been fortunate at Stanford to work with some wonderful dogs and their handlers as we do these visits. We all are coming from different places in life, but all have a common mission when doing the visits. We all have become good friends and colleagues. I have also learned so much about human behavior, animal training and the whole world of wonderful pet owners.