Ashlar, a staffer at Loyola University’s wellness center, is a major celebrity on campus — perhaps second only to Sister Jean.
That’s because Ashlar, estimated age three, is a Great Pyrenees mix, with warm honey eyes and an impossibly fluffy tail that make him stand out slightly from other faculty members. Hired last September, the good boy is the university’s therapy dog, hanging around to help his community reduce stress and boost spirits.
His job is a crucial one: Researchers at UC Berkeley recently found that anxiety levels on college campuses nationwide have doubled in the last decade, likely due to financial pressures and hours spent glued to phones.
At Loyola, home to about 17,000 students, being a therapy dog is a full-time job. During the school year, Ashlar does outreach at least four times a week, visiting various campus locations for about 30 minutes at a time. Anyone can meet him and rub his soft belly during these sessions. Then he returns to his office, which he shares with his handler, Director of Counseling David deBoer (who also takes him home at the end of their work days).
“The idea is to meet students and provide a moment of respite and comfort,” says deBoer, who was sporting blue socks custom-patterned with Ashlar’s face when we met. “So many of them automatically talk about their own dogs and their homes.”
On Wednesday afternoon — the week before finals — at least two dozen students swarmed Ashlar in the student center, most of them passing through on the way to class. At one point, he had eight humans around him, all petting his coat and snapping portraits.
“I follow him on Instagram,” one girl said.
“I follow him on Twitter,” someone else exclaimed. “My roommate and I have been trying to find him.”
Another student, rushing over, had her camera phone at the ready. “I’ve been watching from over there, and I can’t resist anymore,” she said.
In recent years, as the need for mental health services on campuses has increased, more and more colleges are introducing comfort floofers to often overwhelming environments. In Chicago, schools that have adopted canine therapy include Columbia College, which brings therapy dogs to its library twice a semester, and the University of Chicago, where trained doggos arrive once each quarter.
To deBoer’s knowledge, Loyola is the only college in the city that has recruited its own permanent therapy pooch. This has allowed students to form a relationship with Ashlar — in some sense, as they might with a human therapist. And even if they don’t visit him IRL, students can follow him on social media, where he shares sage advice.
Happy Friday! Stop by the IC today at 2 to see me and get finals advice! Mostly, my advice is don’t eat your test! 😛 pic.twitter.com/41fWcy7dfP— Ashlar Loyola (@askashlar) December 7, 2018
Ashlar is actually Loyola’s third therapy dog. The Wellness Center began recruiting them in 2012 after seeing the success of bringing canines to campus on certain occasions. deBoer was instrumental to that initial effort: He recalls, as a volunteer therapist, seeing therapy dogs supporting Northern Illinois University students after the 2008 school shooting; their interactions left a lasting impression on him.
“I noticed there were some Golden Retriever therapy dogs,” he says. “The therapy dogs were mobbed. The students were really reaching a kind of comfort on this basic preverbal level that was really powerful.”
At Loyola, deBoer’s team started working with Canine Therapy Corps, a Chicago organization that provides certified therapy dogs to local communities for free. After awhile, they decided to hire their own, a black lab named Tivo. When Tivo retired in 2017, a senior at age 10, the Wellness Center brought on a two-year-old youngster named Santos.
The new recruit, though, had “problems on the job,” as deBoer puts it. “We had to fire him for poor performance. He’s a wonderful dog, but as a herding breed, he’s always wanting to run around and has high energy. Now he keeps Ashlar company [in the office].”
Ashlar came from TOPS Kennel, a dog training school in Grayslake. He was originally trained to be a service dog, so he’s able to turn on light switches and push automatic door openers. “As smart as he is,” deBoer adds, “he’s a bit lazy, so they thought a therapy dog would be better.”
While Ashlar can sometimes get a bit weary from too much attention (he gets Mondays off), his fans never tire of spotting him. Gillian Cookerly-Dietrich, a student finishing up her freshman year, estimates that she’s visited him about four times. He’s become a familiar, furry face to her.
“I see him around campus, and it just makes me happy.”