Fairfield University’s four-legged furry friend and unofficial mascot, Dakota celebrates her third year on campus. Dakota officially came to Fairfield in the fall of 2015 as a registered emotional support dog, and has proven to destress students and faculty, while radiating positive energy throughout campus. With her office residing in the Marion Peckham Egan School of Nursing and Health Studies, Dakota starts her day at 10:30 a.m. by strolling down the hallways of the Nursing School to greet students as they wait for their morning classes to begin.
Assistant Professor of nursing Carole Pomarico, who is also the adult program director for the School of Nursing, coincidentally adopted Dakota around the same time she was conducting a research study, which analyzed how dogs can reduce stress in college students. After registering her as an emotional support dog, receiving permission from Dean Meredith Kazer of the School of Nursing and the Department of Public Safety, Pomarico had no trouble with introducing Dakota to campus. “I look forward to celebrating her third year on campus and informing students who may not know about her about everything she does,” said Pomarico.
Nursing major, Brooke Matthews ‘19 has the opportunity to walk Dakota throughout the week. “I think Dakota contributes tremendously to our campus. Whenever anybody sees her, they instantly smile and cannot wait to pet her,” said Matthews. “When I was walking Dakota last week, two students stopped to pet her. As we were walking away, I overheard one of the students say, ‘That just made my day 100 times better.’ Fortunately, these scenarios happen all of the time.”
Since Dakota’s first semester, she has immersed herself into a multitude of organizations and volunteer opportunities. In addition to visiting certain classrooms, upon request of professors, Dakota also spends her day working in support for different clubs and projects. Dakota is a member of the Student Nurses Association, she raised $5,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project, received an appreciation certificate for participating in the Great American Smokeout, raised money for the Special Olympics by participating in Fairfield’s annual Jail N’ Bail and most recently she has helped students raise money for a service trip to Nicaragua.
“Dakota’s work is all health related, and specifically de-stress related. Everything she does is for the students,” said Pomarico. “When she sees students between 18 and 22 year old, she assumes they’re her students. Dakota was born for this.”
In a 2017 research study by Emily Wood, Sally Ohlsen, Jennifer Thompson, Joe Hulin and Louise Knowles entitled, “The feasibility of brief dog-assisted therapy on university students stress levels: The PAwS study,” 131 participants had their systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure and state anxiety inventory tested before and after being exposed to a therapy dog. The average age of the students being tested was 19, 121 of which were undergrad students. It’s important to note that 87 of the 131 students claimed to have a pet at home. The data showed that when exposed to a dog for a brief period of time, the participants had significant reduction in systolic and diastolic blood pressure and in-state anxiety – with the state anxiety scale showing a drastic reduction. Out of the 131 participants, 65 percent showed change on the state anxiety inventory.
This study shows that even a small window of time exposed to dogs can both relieve stress and high blood pressure. Matthews echoed these findings from her own experience with Dakota as well. “Dakota has impacted my life in numerous ways. Before I started walking Dakota, I would frequently see her before our exams. Dakota’s role is to relieve anxiety prior to our exams and help us de-stress. She easily accomplishes this task and we all enter the classroom less apprehensive,” said Matthews. “Although her role might seem small, she certainly makes a significant difference … She brings so much joy to us and I think I can say that we all appreciate it so much.”
Dakota not only provides students with a friendly face to see in the hallway, but she also acts as a means to better their health and decrease anxiety. Over the course of three years, Dakota has created a reputation as staff member, volunteer, activist and friend amongst the Fairfield community.