Every student at the College is familiar with that foreboding feeling of too many deadlines approaching too fast. Luckily, there’s Sammie the therapy dog. For one hour a week, the affable black Labrador Retriever can be found in the Peer Health office in upstairs Paresky, helping students wind down after a long week of classes.
Her mellow attitude and silky fur can mute the stress of even the most threatening exam, and 10 minutes rubbing right above her tail, her favorite spot, can leave even the most stressed students feeling uplifted.
Sammie is short for Samantha, which Sammie’s owner Merryan Simon got from the movie and TV show Bewitched. At 10 years old, Sammie may be getting on in years, but she definitely still knows how to make people smile. Her languid demeanor casts a contented cloud across the entire room, but her lazy movements belie a playful personality.
When I visited, we sat in a loose circle as she diligently made her rounds, nuzzling up to each of us in turn and letting us stroke her glossy fur. She stopped on occasion to spontaneously roll on her back, ears perked, paws waving, looking at her audience with that iconic you-know-you-want-to-pet-me gaze. When not enjoying Sammie’s company, we passed the time chatting with each other and with Sammie’s friendly and outgoing owner.
Originally from California, Simon first got interested in therapy dogs after spending time with her father in a nursing home, where she felt too little was being done to brighten up the lives of the residents, especially through touch. Having always been a dog lover, she got the idea when a friend mentioned Animal Friends, a Pennsylvania organization that helps pet owners train and certify their pups as therapy dogs.
Simon took a two-day course with her pet at the time, a Newfoundland named Maestro, and was immediately hooked on the project. Since then, she’s taken dogs to nursing homes, schools and even libraries all over the Berkshires. When Maestro became too old for the rigors of therapy dog life, Simon adopted Sammie. As her newest project, Simon is currently training a feisty little Golden Retriever puppy.
So what makes Sammie such a good therapy dog? “She’s been with other dogs all her life, and she’s happy to be with everybody,” Simon said. “She’s just so happy to have company.” According to Simon, it’s Sammie’s social upbringing that makes her well-suited for to serve as a therapy dog.
That, along with extensive training. Sammie has to pass a test every two years to keep her gig as a therapy dog. The test is rigorous, too; Sammy needs to keep her cool and her focus in the face of everything from loud and rough children to elderly folks with walkers. The tennis balls on the ends of the walkers gave Sammie particular trouble, according to Simon. It’s a lot, but Sammie stays professional. “When the [therapy dog] vest comes out, she knows — I’m going to work,” Simon said. Then the mellow, good-natured pooch that many students have grown to love comes out.
For Summer Thomas ’20, last Friday was her first encounter with Sammie. After reading about the dog in Daily Messages, Thomas decided to drop in for 10 minutes to see what all the hype was about. She emerged from her visit feeling relaxed and pleased that she’d taken the time to be in Sammie’s presence.
“It’s weird living without a dog — I’ve lived with a dog my whole life,” Thomas said. “I kind of have this emotional dependence.”
Sammie helped to fill that void, bringing Thomas a little closer to her dog at home. Her favorite part? “Feeling dog fur — I hadn’t felt dog fur in so long.” Other students spoke of similar benefits, sharing tales of their own pets at home as they rubbed Sammie’s belly. Many visitors also maintained that visiting Sammie makes for a great study break and can help mitigate that week’s-end exhaustion that we all know so well.
Sammie’s therapeutic benefits aren’t limited to die-hard dog lovers, either. I personally don’t have a dog at home, but still found Sammie’s presence inexplicably calming. For the rest of the day, every time I picked a stray clump of black fur from my clothes, I couldn’t help but smile. Sammie allowed these students to feel more present and appreciate all the great things (most notably, the adorable pup) right under their noses.
Interested in getting to know Sammie face to face? She’s here every Friday, from 2–3 p.m. in Peer Health, waiting to brighten days.