WICHITA, Kan. – For those who frequent the Riley Leroy Pitts Military and Veteran Student Center at Wichita State University, there’s a new therapist who has become quite a hit.
The therapist doesn’t charge a fee, ask about childhood memories or give advice. She does, however, offer free cuddles and a respite from the pressures of college life.
She is also at times preoccupied with the sight of a squirrel and likes to play fetch.
The therapist – actually a therapy dog in training – is a friendly rescue pooch named Riley. A 3-year-old Rhodesian ridgeback/Labrador, Riley lives with Sarah Sell, director of veteran student services at Wichita State, but spends much of her week at the veterans center.
The official mascot of the center, which some students have dubbed her, is named after U.S. Army Capt. Riley Leroy Pitts, who was the first black commissioned officer to receive the Medal of Honor.
“I think some of the draw to dogs and therapy dogs is that they don’t care what kind of day you had – they love you no matter what,” Sell said. “They don’t care if you said something nasty to someone about the election, they just love that you’re there to pet them. Our students really love having Riley here. They look for her.”
Once they complete a training program, certified therapy dogs typically make visits to places like hospitals and rehabilitation centers. The dogs need to be mild-mannered and comfortable around people in order to be certified.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon at the veterans center – a room with a few tables, couches and computer desk areas in Lindquist Hall – Riley went from person to person, burrowing in for a snuggle or requesting to be petted.
“Riley is so goofy,” said Erin Rust, a Wichita State junior who also works part time at the center. “She’s a nice distraction from your day. People can come in here upset about something that’s going on in their life and after about 10 minutes around Riley, they feel better.
“You can’t be mean when you look at Riley’s face.”
Sell said the university has about 800 military-affiliated students that it knows of. On a typical day, she said, about 100 will come through the center.
“Primarily, Riley is here to support our veterans on campus,” Sell said. “Students sometimes come into my office and just curl up and cuddle with her before a big test. She helps people calm down a little bit. She’s really had a positive impact.”
Sell, who got Riley in May from Caring Hands Humane Society in Newton, hopes to have her fully certified as a therapy dog early next year. She said she takes Riley to training once per week and works with her extensively at home.
A more spacious veterans center inside Grace Wilkie Hall at Wichita State is also in the works, Sell said, and could be open in time for the start of the spring semester.
Sell, who is still active in the Air National Guard, praised the university’s leadership – specifically president John Bardo – for the support that has been provided to the campus military-affiliated community.
“Wichita State has worked to improve services overall for our military and veteran students, and this includes innovative approaches, such as having a therapy dog available to help ease anxiety and stress,” Bardo said in a statement.
The university’s commitment appears to have been noticed. On Wednesday, Wichita State announced that two organizations – Victory Media and Military Advanced Education & Transition magazine – recently dubbed the university as a top school for military members and veterans.
“I’ve had yellow Labs all my life, so I love having Riley around,” said Bryan Casey, a Navy veteran and marketing major at Wichita State. “She makes campus feel more like home. You can come (to the veterans center) and just exhale, and she’s a big part of that.”