Sun Devil PAWS Therapy connects students with therapy dogs

Without a spring break, certified therapy dogs on campus are helping to alleviate stress

A group made of pet therapy teams offers a fluffy respite from the academic and mental health stressors students are facing in a semester without a spring break.

Sun Devil PAWS Therapy, a group of certified volunteer trainers and therapy dogs, has been holding events intermittently throughout the semester in hopes of relaxing students by allowing them to interact with a few fuzzy friends on campus. 

On Feb. 24, PAWS Therapy held an event on the West campus for students to walk up and meet Lil' Bit, a 6-year-old Shih tzu-poodle mix.

“This (event) is kind of a moment for everyone to take a step back and really find peace and comfort and destress,” said Monica Wilmoth, a junior studying psychology who works with the Sun Devil Fitness and Wellness department to facilitate these types of events. “The dogs are amazing.” 

Lil' Bit, a therapy dog, watches a passerby outside the Verde Dining Pavilion on the ASU West campus on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

Lil’ Bit, the tail-wagging star of the show, went through numerous temperament and behavioral evaluations to be certified for animal-assisted crisis response, said Lela Muirhead, Lil’ Bit’s certified therapy dog handler. The pair are a part of Pet Partners, an animal therapy organization that aims to improve health through human-animal bonding. 

Before the pandemic, Lil’ Bit and Muirhead attended a wide variety of events, including visits to nursing homes, hospitals and locations after a traumatic event. 

“I used to visit the hospitals every week and just go visit any patient that wanted to see her. And we've done readings at the library where we let little kids read books to her, any kind of event where people want to snuggle a dog,” Muirhead said. 

Muirhead said she worked hard with Lil’ Bit as a puppy to expose her to distractions she might face in her therapy work, such as going to motocross races, fireworks displays and nursing homes. 

Despite all of the distraction training, Lil’ Bit has always had a sweet and calm demeanor. Therapy dogs cannot get certified until they are at least a year old, but Lil’ Bit was ready at 6 months old, Muirhead said. 

Lil' Bit, a therapy dog, lays on the ground outside the Verde Dining Pavilion on the ASU West campus on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

Grecia Cubillas, a sophomore studying global management who helps organize the events, said students love to come to interact with the dogs. 

“You can really tell when the students see the dog, they're really excited and they want to go pet them right away,” Cubillas said. 

Cole Canfield, a sophomore studying management, did not know about the PAWS Therapy event before he arrived. But "we saw a dog," he said simply, prompting Canfield and his friend to stop and pet Lil' Bit. 

Although some students are still nervous to get out and interact in person because of the pandemic, many are looking for opportunities to alleviate some of their stress, Wilmoth said. 

“Students are feeling a little bit better with coming out and, like, ready to do more things because they did spend so much time in quarantine and locked up that they're like, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys are doing that? I’m coming out right now!’” Wilmoth said.  

Addison Sutton, a freshman studying global management, came over to pet Lil’ Bit as soon as he saw her. He said mental health is an important consideration for college students, especially this semester with the absence of spring break.

“I guess that's also why we have therapy dogs," he said. "Like even now, I kind of want a break. I got midterms coming up here and there, but if I had a break, that’d be kind of sick." 

But without it, seeing Lil' Bit would be the closest thing Sutton would have to a spring break.

Reach the reporter at and follow @Anna_Lee_Camp on Twitter. 

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