The first time Marcia Nahikian-Nelms brought her 6-week-old golden retriever puppy, Belle, to work with her, she realized the special connection that Belle had with people. Eight years and 80 pounds later, that puppy is now a therapy dog known as Buckeye Belle.
While working for a university in Missouri, Nahikian-Nelms brought her new puppy Belle into work with her. While she worked, Belle would go to the university day care to play with the children.
“From six weeks on, (the day care workers) would come and get Belle every day to play with the children,” Nahikian-Nelms said.
Seeing the connection Belle had with the children, Nahikian-Nelms said she knew Belle was going to be a therapy dog.
“It was just really apparent early on that she had this really amazing ability to connect with people, and I think part of it is due to that early experience being part of that day care and being with the young children,” Nahikian-Nelms said.
Belle is Nahikian-Nelms’ fifth golden retriever and first therapy dog. Nahikian-Nelms said she originally had no intention of making Belle a therapy dog.
“She just had this real unique kind of connection that I knew she was going to be a therapy dog really at that early age, because she just really connected,” Nahikian-Nelms said.
When Nahikian-Nelms moved to Columbus five years ago, she began Belle’s therapy-dog training. The professor said Belle’s training lasted about six months and entailed basic and higher-level obedience training to make sure she could work in different environments without reacting or getting distracted.
“One of the things that’s really hard for her because she’s a golden and loves to eat, is that if she sees food, she has to be able to leave that alone,” she said.
Nahikian-Nelms said she and Belle started coming to the Ohio State Student Wellness Center after learning about a student research project that looked at the value therapy dogs could bring to college students. Assistant professor Dr. Jill Clutter in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences headed the project and said the research showed that therapy dogs improved students’ moods and lowered their anxiety levels, even showing physiological benefits.
“Some of the research they’ve done has also been physiological in terms of lowering blood pressure, lowering heart rate and normalizing breathing patterns,” Clutter said.
And because the research showed college students could benefit from interaction with therapy dogs, Clutter said she suggested Nahikian-Nelms bring Belle into the Student Wellness Center.
“From that original little research study, we got connected to the RPAC and the Student Wellness Center … and now she’s been coming once a week for the past three years,” Nahikian-Nelms said.
Assistant director of the Student Wellness Center Blake Marble also aided in the process of bringing Belle to the center.
“A lot of different places use therapy dogs in many different ways, and we were just trying to think of a creative way to bring that to our campus and to our office,” Marble said.
According to the Student Wellness Center website, there are nine dimensions of wellness. They are emotional, career, social, spiritual, physical, financial, intellectual, creative and environmental wellness. Marble said he could make an argument that Belle helps satisfy every dimension, but some are particularly apparent when he sees students interacting with Belle.
“Seeing students smiling and laughing while they’re around Belle, that’s a positive sign,” he said. “It brings people together. Students that may not have ever met each other are sitting there petting Belle and they strike up a conversation with each other, and you hear about the dogs they have at home and how they miss their dogs, so it starts conversation.”
Since Belle has been coming to the Student Wellness Center, the student response has been positive, and there are students who visit on a weekly basis just to see Belle, Marble said.
“The feedback we’ve gotten has been tremendous, very positive. Students love interacting with her, they just lay on the floor and kind of pet her for a while,” he said. “It caused quite the stir in a positive way.”
Belle comes to the Student Wellness Center every Wednesday and also participates in the “Pause for Paws” event that takes place during finals week in Thompson Library. Although Belle spends much of her time as a therapy dog, Nahikian-Nelms said she is very much still a family dog and the same loving puppy she used to take to work with her.
“She is definitely our family dog when she’s at home, but as soon as she puts her little vest on, she is ready to go to work,” she said.