Therapy dogs bring smiles; reduce cadet stress
U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 4th Class Eri McClain-Yu holds Go Team Therapy Crisis and Airport Dog Spiff in McDermott Library Dec. 11, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Rayna Grace)
By Randy Roughton
U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Cadet 3rd Class Nicolina Brown said she loves Go Team Therapy Crisis and Airport Dogs so much that she has a perfect answer whenever she’s late meeting friends.
“I say, ‘you can’t blame me; there was a dog,'” Brown said.
For 12 years, therapy dogs from Go Team have regularly visited the Academy. They provide smiles, stress relief and comfort. As freshmen adapt to the rigors of cadet life, they find reprieve through interactions with the dogs.
“I love seeing dogs,” Brown said. “They calm me down because I struggle to ask for help. You don’t have to ask the dog; you just pet it. When you’re stressed out, and you feel you’re at your worst, dogs still love to see you.”
U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 3rd Class Nicolina Brown hugs Go Team Therapy Crisis and Airport Dog Ace in McDermott Library Dec. 11, 2023. (Courtesy photo by Cadet 3rd Class Nicolina Brown)
The Cadet Wing’s faithful canine visitors
Go Team founder and executive director Nancy Trepagnier first brought an 8-week-old golden retriever named Tabor to the dorms in 2006. She founded the organization in 2012 with two dogs and two handlers. Go Team now has more than 800 teams nationwide and in Italy and Spain. The handler-trained dogs bring relief, care and assistance to anyone in need. They appear at the Academy for holidays, finals week, noon meal formation and other occasions. When the Academy loses a cadet or staff member, therapy dogs visit the Cadet Wing to comfort those grieving, Trepagnier said.
“To watch a cadet or staff member hold our dogs and just talk to them is heartwarming,” Trepagnier said. “It reminds us why we do what we do. But watching the cadets run into the halls and hug the therapy dogs is also rewarding for us and the cadets. How excited the dogs are to see the cadets and the cadets are to see our dogs!”
U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 3rd Class Laura de Leon pets Go Team Therapy Crisis and Airport Dog Ben in Arnold Hall Jan. 25, 2024. (Courtesy photo by Cadet 3rd Class Laura de Leon)
Canine visits make cadets happy
Cadet 3rd Class Laura de Leon attended her first therapy dog event as a freshman and now regularly attends planned events. De Leon recalls encountering a dog in the hallway in Fairchild Hall on a particularly stressful day, de Leon sometimes encounters a dog in the hallway on her way from class.
“I had this rain cloud over my head, and just seeing this little dog sitting in the hallway would flip me from a one to a 10,” de Leon said. “When I’m with the dogs, I feel like a little girl or a little kid who gets a puppy for Christmas. There’s just something about a bunch of puppies in the room that is going to delight most people.”
Aside from providing comfort during times of crisis or stress, the therapy dogs also help cadets who miss their own dogs. They provide a little sense of home, de Leon said.
“A lot of cadets have pets at home they’re missing, and the dogs help to fill the void,” she said. “I’m petting a dog. It may not be my dog, but it makes me happy.”
Paws bringing peace
From attending study sessions to holiday costume appearances and finals week, cadets get a sense of relief and peace from their time with therapy dogs. Whether they hold or pet the dogs or “roll around on the floor” with them as Brown said she does, the positive emotional lift is the same.
“I feel very much at peace when I’m with the dogs,” Brown said. “I read once that whenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed, you go to a child or dog’s mind because that’s when you’re at your simplest time. I’m doing that when I’m with the dogs. No matter what happens in life, there are always dogs.”
U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 4th Class Eri McClain-Yu plays with Jessica McDonald’s Go Team Therapy Crisis and Airport Dog Rigley, left, and Kendra Mauer’s Khloe, right, in McDermott Library Dec. 11, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Rayna Grace)
For more photos of therapy dog visits to the Academy, see Flickr.