Therapy dog Epcot ready to serve the Hokie community
Assisting with countless counseling sessions, outreach opportunities, and community events, this full-time employee embodies the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). Epcot is a Labrador retriever and the latest addition to the Virginia Tech therapy dog team.
Specialized guide dog training may include assisting individuals with balance issues, cognitive challenges, or impairments of hearing or vision. After extensive, advanced training with Guiding Eyes for the Blind, where Epcot learned to lead a person wearing a blindfold, he embarked on a new career as a therapy dog with Cook Counseling Center. Epcot joins the Hokie community with advanced obedience training and specific skills that apply to therapy.
Epcot works alongside fellow therapy dog Derek with handler Trent Davis, coordinator for the Animal Assisted Therapy program. In a typical year, these dogs are present for about 1,000 cumulative individual and group therapy sessions, where they apply their skills to comfort and assist students. Additionally, they attend hundreds of community and outreach events, such as Gobblerfest, the 3.2-Mile Run in Remembrance, and wellness and sporting events. Students may even spot their furry pals in residence halls, the classroom, or at club meetings.
Epcot turns 2 this March, making him the youngest of the therapy dogs.
“I believe that Epcot adds not only immediate support and connection opportunities for students and the entire Hokie community, he is also, in many ways, the future of the program. The working life of these dogs are eight to 10 years … so we have to be thinking in a much shorter time frame than with other human employees,” Davis said.
The Animal Assisted Therapy program is a focal point of Virginia Tech’s commitment to mental health support, as the therapy dogs open doors to the work done in Cook Counseling Center. They also act as catalysts for conversations surrounding mental health.
“Students who might not otherwise choose the resources we offer through Cook Counseling will stop and visit with our dogs throughout campus and many times begin to talk about challenges they are experiencing. This allows our therapists to engage these students in relaxed and calm settings and to better provide next step assistance as needed,” said Chris Wise, assistant vice president for health and wellness.
Prior to landing his new career, Epcot was thoroughly screened by clinicians at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Clinicians assisted counseling professionals in making an informed decision regarding Epcot’s adoption, who was released from Guiding Eyes for the Blind because of chronic ear infections – a minor medical condition that has since been resolved.
“Derek, Josie, and Wagner have continued the legacy of our first therapy dog, Moose, since his passing. But now they have another teammate as we welcome Epcot to the counseling center. We have found that four therapy dogs is the right number to provide these types of services without overworking them,” Wise said. “However, we only look for certain types of dogs for this program. I think our students will continue to engage in many healthy ways with these four great ambassadors for mental health awareness.”
In the spirit of Ut Prosim, Epcot is happy, healthy, and ready to serve those around him. All four therapy dogs, Derek, Wagner, Josie, and Epcot, have office hours available where students can visit throughout the year. Starting March 24, students can visit Epcot on Fridays from 4 to 5 p.m. in the Squires Student Center. The dogs are eager to share their affirmation, calming energy, and friendship with their fellow Hokies.
Written by Tayten Allison