Therapy Dog Paws Way Into Students’ Hearts

Kristina Vakhman

Kristina Vakhman, News Editor

So many students clumped together in Central Connecticut’s Student Center Circle that it was hard to see the pitbull they were petting. But when Annie emerged from the cluster, tongue lolled out and tail wagging, it became apparent why everyone couldn’t keep their hands off of her.

“This is fulfilling every need I have to pet every dog on the street,” Aliza Del Vaglio, a freshman majoring in psychology, said. Her friend Asia Lumpkin, also a freshman and a nursing major, laughed in agreement. 

Annie, a therapy dog who came to Central last Wednesday as part of Mental Health Week, drew such a big crowd that the event needed to be moved outside from the Student Center Lobby. Student Government Association Senator Kristina Rodrigues, who helped coordinate Annie’s arrival, said that the students were even beginning to be riled up the longer they waited.

“People were verbally talking about how they were disgruntled that Annie wasn’t there exactly at 1 p.m. They were not exactly happy,” Rodrigues recalled. 

However, it was obvious that Annie didn’t mind the overwhelming attention, inviting strokes to her glossy coat and giving kisses to whoever could withstand her wet tongue to their face.

“She’s very social. She loves people,” owner Melissa Tardif stated. As she spoke, she let Annie lead her around the Circle, giving the pitbull free range to sniff at the students who stopped to touch and take photos of her.

“I had seen the ad [for therapy dogs] before and thought it was pretty interesting, but never thought I had a dog that would fit the bill until I got Annie,” Tardif said.

Annie had been found in a dumpster in Waterbury over seven years ago. Her age at the time was unknown, and Tardif estimates that Annie’s now 10 or 11—she’s started graying this year. It was clear that she’d been nursing puppies, but the litter was never found.

Animal control officers took Annie to Our Companions Animal Rescue in Manchester, where she lived with the foster family that named her after the fictional orphan Annie. Tardif’s mother then found the pitbull while scrolling through Petfinder and Tardif went to meet her; she took Annie home that same day, completely smitten.

“She sleeps upside-down on her back and snores, but she dreams,” Tardif said as an example of what makes Annie so special. “One night, she was upside-down and making noises and her legs were going and her tail was wagging the whole time. I was videoing her for ten minutes and was like, ‘She’s having an awesome dream.’”

Annie was never meant to become a therapy dog. Tardif had just lost one of her huskies and thought Annie would be a perfect comfort to her other husky, Kiana. But seeing how well Annie got along with Kiana, Tardif’s other pitbull Princess and humans, it seemed natural to get her certified. Tardif doesn’t regret it.

“The biggest thing that has changed my life is this volunteering. I’d never volunteered before. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Volunteering is amazing. It makes me feel good to know that she makes people feel happy,” Tardif said.

Besides coming to Central for about three years, Annie visits sick children at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford and frequents New Britain’s public schools. Tardif takes the opportunity to teach the kids that pitbulls aren’t bad dogs.

She may look intimidating, but she’s very gentle. She’s very sweet and patient,” Tardif explained. “I fell into, ‘She’s a pit.’ I was hesitant with a lot of stuff because [of that], but I shouldn’t have [been] because she’s amazing.”

It seemed that CCSU’s students thought Annie was amazing, too. “She’s so cute!” one exclaimed. “She’s so good!” another commented. “Can I hug her?” several asked. Through it all, Annie welcomed pets, scratches and embraces, especially when offered a bacon treat, her favorite.

“She’s very food-driven. Takes me about ten minutes in the backyard to work on a trick with her,” Tardif said. Annie ‘sat’ and ‘stayed’ while Tardif spoke, staring slightly cross-eyed at the bacon treat that hovered over her. “See the size of her? She’s not afraid of food.”

As a therapy dog, Annie is meant to de-stress, and de-stress CCSU students she did. Del Vaglio and Lumpkin both admitted that they were anxious as first-years encountering exams and stated that meeting Annie had eased some of the tension.

“Yes, definitely,” Lumpkin replied enthusiastically when asked if she hoped Annie would return again in the future. 

“Especially before midterms, [it helps],” Del Vaglio added. “Therapy dogs are good. That’s my ‘medical’ diagnosis.”