News from Ohio State University

Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Buckeye Paws program expanding to university

Buckeye Paws, a popular mental health therapy dog program that provides comfort to students, faculty and staff throughout the Wexner Medical Center, is expanding its services beyond the medical center.

The innovative program has served as a boon to the well-being of patient-facing medical employees since its launch in March 2020 – right before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Volunteers and their trained canine companions bring comfort and emotional support directly to medical center employees who wish to interact with the dogs. Now, Ohio State University community members on the academic side can request a visit from the animals.

President Kristina M. Johnson supports the expansion, which serves as another example of how the university promotes the health, safety and well-being of the Buckeye community.

“The Buckeye community has experienced a lot of challenges during the past two years. I’m so happy that the Buckeye Paws program is another way we can provide even more mental health support to our students, faculty and staff,” Johnson said. “As someone who has met the wonderful dogs in this program, I’m a firm believer in the impact animals can have on mental health and well-being.”

Research backs up program’s impact on health care employees

Though Buckeye Paws started in March 2020, the idea predated the pandemic. The health system’s employees were already under stress before the unprecedented surge of COVID-19 patients. Wexner Medical Center employees could use the comfort provided by the dogs, who meet the staff where they are, more than ever.

“The Buckeye Paws program has been an innovative way to help support our health care professionals as they care for others while balancing the stressors of the job, especially throughout the pandemic,” said Dr. Andrew Thomas, interim co-leader and chief clinical officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “The last two years have been particularly challenging for the health care workforce, and it’s been heartening to see the calming, uplifting effect these happy dogs have on our faculty, staff and learners. It’s truly exciting to see this program expand and be able to brighten the days of every Buckeye at Ohio State.”

Some Buckeye Paws handlers are trained in trauma-informed response. When used along with the comfort provided by the dogs, they can help to flesh out potential mental health problems from people who may not otherwise volunteer the information.

The dogs’ positive impact on staffers isn’t just anecdotal.

Ongoing research conducted by Wexner Medical Center employees and Buckeye Paws volunteers highlights its effectiveness. The self-reported mood of staff in the Intensive Care and Medical Surgical units increased by over 50% after interacting with the Buckeye Paws therapy dogs. 

“Our health care workers go through so much in the daily course of their jobs. While their interactions with the dogs won’t solve their stress, this research shows it can go a long way to boosting their morale and reducing stress,” said Beth Steinberg, staff development coordinator at the Wexner Medical Center.

Post-intervention data on perceived stress, burnout and work engagement are still being collected and will be reported after an analysis.

Steinberg helped coordinate the research and volunteers in Buckeye Paws with her yellow Labrador retriever, Brienne. Steinberg is a co-founder of Buckeye Paws, along with Mary Justice, associate executive director, patient care services and clinical transformation at the Wexner Medical Center, and Aimee Mitchell, program coordinator.

“The Buckeye Paws program has had such a positive impact on our patient care staff before and during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jackie Buck, chief nursing officer. “When I’m visiting staff on the floors, it’s so rewarding to see the joy come over our staff when the dogs arrive on the unit. We’re so grateful to Mary Justice, Beth Steinberg and Aimee Mitchell for developing Buckeye Paws. It’s very exciting to see it expand to benefit students, faculty and staff across the Ohio State campus.”

How you can help
Dog handlers in Buckeye Paws are all volunteers who work at the Wexner Medical Center and choose to spend their time supporting their colleagues. 

The highly trained dogs, certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, simply spend time with them, helping to provide holistic wellness.

There are 30 dogs in the program, with nine more undergoing training. The need for more volunteers and their dogs will continue with this large expansion. Any university employee and their dog can apply to go through the training program by clicking here.  

If you’re a student, faculty or staff member who would like to request a visit from Buckeye Paws, you can email [email protected] your name, contact info, reason for a visit and preferred date and time. Examples of approved visits could be for a student group meeting, a class ahead of exams or for a group of employees dealing with a stressful period.

The public is invited to meet some of the Buckeye Paws dogs and their handlers from 10 a.m. to noon on Tuesday, March 8, on the Oval near the Thompson Library.

Buckeye Paws is run mostly by volunteers, with one full-time employee. To support the programming, research, training and supplies, consider donating to the Buckeye Paws fund.