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Ten years of Barks@Parks: Paws-ing to reflect

Author: M. Monica Gillen

Celebrating 10 years of Barks@Parks

An exhilarating academic achievement. The weight of a looming exam. A longing to go home.

A day in the life of an Iowa State student can bring emotional stressors and pressures, especially when coursework demands peak.

Recognizing these challenges caused us to think. What if the University Library could help students improve their emotional well-being and boost morale? The library public relations committee had heard about therapy dog programs in libraries and hospitals and considered several other activities like coloring pages and puzzles (which are now offered during prep and finals weeks). What if we invited dogs to come to Parks Library to comfort students at the end of the semester?  

That conversation ten years ago has since led to more than 20,000 students experiencing canine cuddles and comfort at Barks@Parks. 

Let’s look back 

On Oct. 31, 2014, Joyce Garnett, interim library dean, received an email on behalf of the public relations committee asking for her blessing to invite therapy dogs (and their owners) to entertain students.  

Garnett’s response:  
Fascinated by the idea and look forward to seeing it in action.   
Woof! Woof!   
You have my support. 

An event like Barks@Parks, as it’s since been named, doesn’t magically happen. It takes planning, a space large enough, the work of many volunteers, dogs, their people, more dogs, and more of their people. And treats. Oh, and permission from the Office of Risk Management.

Though we had support from library administration, we encountered uncertainty and skepticism, too. Do we have a room big enough? What if the dogs bark? What if a dog has an accident?

We have space. The event started in Room 199 in Parks Library, moved twice, and is now settled in the Upper Rotunda. Dogs do bark, but just a few and only occasionally. Life is messy. The rare accident happens, and we simply clean it up. Thankfully, the Office of Risk Management continues to reapprove Barks@Parks each year.  

Planning is a team effort

To help find enough dogs to satisfy the swarms of students who would turn out during the inaugural year, Mindy Moeller, senior conservation assistant in the library, offered her connection to the Cyclone Country Kennel Club of Ames. In order to participate, dogs have to be Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certified through the American Kennel Club, complete the Animal Rescue League’s Therapet program, or have their Therapy Dogs International (TDI) certification.  

Hundreds have volunteered since 2014. The Cyclone Country Kennel Club of Ames, the Animal Rescue League of Iowa's Therapets program, and the Des Moines Obedience Training Club all have helped connect dogs with Barks@Parks over the years. And dozens of library staff members are needed each semester to give the VIP treatment to the 30-50 pups and their people who come each spring and fall.

Susan Gent, community outreach specialist, and Cara Stone, circulation services librarian, join forces to coordinate volunteers. They purchase supplies and make arrangements to keep the dogs and their people comfortable. Library staff volunteers handle the dogs if their person needs a break or if a pup needs to go outside. They fill water bowls and offer water bottles. They welcome students and help keep paths clear and backpacks out of the way, and they help make the circles bigger or smaller to make space for every student who wants to engage with the dogs.

Win. Win. Win. 

The pups are always excited to meet students because they give maximum scritches and treats. The pet's people are happy to facilitate for them. Students are eternally grateful to be a part of the best study break ever. 

"Barks@Parks is a great opportunity to find happiness during Prep Week,” said Kayla Rodriguez, freshman, psychology.  “As a college student spending hours in the library and lots of time studying can cause lots of stress and really make your day feel long and dreadful. But being able to see the dogs and spend a little break socializing really helps and makes something great to look forward to, especially when missing my dogs at home!” 

Rhonda Crane has been active in pet therapy for 32 years (with seven Golden Retrievers and two Havanese). She and her pups are Barks@Parks legends. 

“We have participated in every Barks@Parks,” said Crane. “I volunteer to share my dogs to others who may miss their own dogs and/or need an unconditional visitor who always welcomes pets and smiles.” 

Brendan Finan, pictured center, submitted Barks@Parks, which becomes the official event name in May 2015. Left, Jodi Hilleman then library administrative assistant. Right, Monica Gillen.
Brendan Finan then computer engineering major, submitted Barks@Parks, which became the official event name in May 2015. Pictured L to R: Jodi Hilleman then library administrative specialist, Finan, Monica Gillen communications specialist.

When Crane’s canines began their time volunteering, the semesterly gathering was referenced as the dead week comfort dog event. It really needed a name, so the public relations committee ran a contest via the library Facebook page. We received 20 suggestions, and after thoughtful consideration, Garnett made the final selection. Brendan Finan, then sophomore in computer engineering, submitted Barks@Parks, which was announced on May 15, 2015. 

And then there’s Ted, a 12-year-old Boxer who’s been well-known at Barks@Parks since 2018. Elisabeth and Steven Lonergan, both animal science professors, are Ted’s people. They recognize the value of having well-behaved dogs trained for interaction.

“I know students look forward to the event and appreciate a chance to relax even if it’s just for a few minutes,” Steven said. “Ted loves meeting with the students, and they love Ted and the other volunteer dogs. They also generally enjoy telling me about their own dog and I appreciate the chance for a conversation with students.” 

The dogs’ names and breeds differ, but they’re all motivated by the same things. Affection. Treats. Smiles.  

During the pandemic, Barks@Parks went online thanks to YouTube. A new video was uploaded each day of spring 2020 Prep Week. Visit our YouTube channel to relive those moments. 

The Parks Library event initiated to help students destress and relax before finals has become so important to them that one Facebook commenter even cited it as their reason for choosing Iowa State. 

Barks@Parks takes place from noon-3 p.m., Monday-Friday during Prep Week each semester in the Upper Rotunda in Parks Library. 

Follow the paw prints.🐾