Lounging with Lizzie brings a therapy dog to Excel Centers

Puppy love has landed on campus. Lounging with Lizzie is a new event visiting Excel Centers around campus, giving students a chance to relax and unwind with a therapy dog.

Lounging with Lizzie started at the beginning of the spring 2024 semester. Lizzie, a 7-year-old, 12-pound cavalier King Charles spaniel, is a licensed therapy dog with the Alliance of Therapy dogs. She visits Excel Centers at UCCS every other Thursday.

The third Lounging with Lizzie event took place at the Multiliteracy Center on Feb. 15. Lizzie visited the Math and Engineering Excel Centers during the first two events.

Senior English major Jamie Villarreal stopped by the Multiliteracy Center when she heard Lizzie was visiting. “This was the highlight of my day,” Villarreal said. She felt “very happy” to be petting a dog and enjoyed the spontaneous stress relief.

Lizzie greeted everyone in the room with an enthusiastic tail wag. She sat patiently with students who offered her pets, even granting some the pleasure of belly rubs.

Associate professor of education in counseling and human services, Diane Stutey, rescued Lizzie at 6 months old in Oklahoma, where she formerly worked at Oklahoma State University. Lizzie overcame an esophagus infection before finding her way home with Stutey.

Stutey always wanted to have a therapy dog, and Lizzie was the perfect candidate. Stutey says Lizzie loves people — even more than other dogs. By the time Lizzie turned 1, she was certified as a therapy dog.

“A lot of people will say she was meant to do this,” Stutey said. “She doesn’t meet a person she doesn’t like.”

Stutey regularly brought Lizzie around campus before Lounging with Lizzie began. Lizzie paid frequent visits to Stutey’s office hours and classes.

“She’s starting to get recognized, which I think is funny. If I just take her across campus for a walk, people will stop and pet her and say, ‘This was the best part of my day,’” Stutey said. “I need to allow twice as much time [to take her out on walks] because people want to see her.”

In Nov. 2023, the Wellness Center approached Stutey about integrating Lizzie into the Excel Centers. Stutey was excited about the opportunity to make Lizzie an accessible resource for more students.

Stutey recognizes the importance of having an animal to bond with on campus for students missing their pets at home. Lizzie allows students to regulate amid busy college schedules.

“It’s just unconditional love,” Stutey said. “She’s just happy to see you. She doesn’t care what grade you got or what class you’re struggling in.”

The Alliance of Therapy Dogs requires handlers and their dogs to volunteer at least once every three months. When Stutey and Lizzie first moved to Colorado, they visited a children’s hospital and assisted at vaccine clinics. “Kids would be getting shots, and they could hold Lizzie. Or after they got the shot, they could pet Lizzie, because they were supposed to move their arm,” Stutey said.

Now, Lizzie loves to visit Penrose Hospital when she is not helping students. Lizzie visits nursing stations, the emergency room and often has one-on-one time with patients per their request. “There’s a different energy she has when she gets there. She often pulls me through the doors as we go in,” Stutey said.

Some days, Lizzie tells Stutey “not today.” Lizzie will either run towards her therapy vest with tail-wagging excitement or will run under the table and hide. Stutey recognizes that while it may be inconvenient for Lizzie’s patients, she has to respect Lizzie’s wishes to take a day off.

Stutey is trained to recognize signs of distress or tiredness. If Lizzie wears out early, Stutey may need to take her home before her allotted therapy time is up.

Stutey feels uniquely equipped as a handler because of her background in therapy. “I’m trained as a counselor, but I’m not a counselor when I’m handling her,” Stutey said. “At the hospital, you see and hear some really hard things that I think my background makes me very used to.”

Still, Stutey recognizes that Lizzie has the job of therapist when they go to the hospital together. “I’m used to being the support person, and now I’m just supporting Lizzie in being the support person. I have to find that balance … I’m there to be the handler and to make sure Lizzie’s okay,” Stutey said.

Stutey is engaged in research to help bring more therapy dogs to campus. Over the last two years, Stutey has conducted five studies to measure Lizzie’s impact on students, one of which is already published. Subjects include graduate and undergraduate students, and youth in the UCCS Campus Connections program.

“One of the things I found most interesting that I wasn’t expecting — I always worry she’s a distraction — is that the results have shown that students feel more focused because she is there,” Stutey said.

At Lounging with Lizzie, Stutey gives students Lizzie’s business card with a QR code to a survey about Lizzie’s impact. Stutey hopes to use qualitative data to prove Lizzie’s positive impact on students.

While Lizzie did not have much to say about the events, she greeted every passer-by with a wagging tail and a generous smile.

Lizzie, the therapy dog, provides comfort to students in the Multiliteracy Excel Center. Photo by Meghan Germain.