Buckeye Paws celebrates 3-year anniversary, reflects on growth through COVID-19 pandemic

The Lantern
Despite difficulties early on due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Buckeye Paws celebrated its third year at Ohio State with surprise visits on campus. Credit: Nathan Mader | Lantern Reporter

Despite difficulties early on due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Buckeye Paws –– a group of certified therapy dog-handler teams focused on supporting mental and emotional health –– celebrated its third year at Ohio State with surprise visits on campus.

Aimee Mitchell, Buckeye Paws’ program manager, said the organization celebrated its three-year anniversary by having the dogs visit and tour the Ohio State Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital March 6. The next day, a surprise party at Thompson Library was held to commemorate the one-year anniversary since the program expanded to include all of campus. These events reflected the program’s growth, starting with three dogs to now 34, she said.

Mitchell said the dogs were “spreading some love” around the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.

“There’s a basset hound that’s on our team. He had a little balloon on his harness and a little hat on and he just, like, walked around. A lot of our dogs went around for people that can’t get off their units,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said the program has experienced a lot of growth in the past three years, but the pandemic’s challenges made expansion difficult and sometimes dangerous.

“Within the medical center, actually, is where we started the program, and we were focused on staff at that time,” Mitchell said. “A week after we launched the program, COVID happened, so we immediately shut down the program because we just didn’t know if dogs were vectors or if they can get it.”

Mitchell said after confirming with Rustin Moore, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, and his team of epidemiologists who found that dogs have an extremely low chance of contracting the virus, the program was started back up due to a severe need in the medical center.

“What we saw was that staff were suffering even more just because they were scared as well,” Mitchell said. “Were they taking it home to their families, working overtime, caring about their co-workers?”

Mary Justice, co-founder of Buckeye Paws and the handler of her dog Shiloh, said the program started with three dogs and now has 34 with six more ready to graduate and join the program.

“We thought it would be fine, and we will be able to do the work that we’re doing if we had around 10 dogs,” Justice said. “With the popularity of the program, we quickly learned we need a lot more dogs.”

Mitchell said another issue with visits from the dogs during the pandemic was people flocking toward them in tight groups — which was problematic due to social distancing guidelines.

“Everybody had to be six feet apart, so we had to tell people ‘OK, wait your turn. You have a little bit of time with the dog, then we’ll move on to somebody else,’” Mitchell said. “Obviously as restrictions have lessened, people are able to gather around the dog again.”

Mitchell said easing COVID-19 restrictions has emphasized the impact the dogs can have on the university community, and it’s helped them expand their outreach.

“We’re able to, kind of, go everywhere now, where before it was, you know, students weren’t in the university. They were at home, they were taking classes, you know, from their dorms or wherever they were. And so now people are back out,” Mitchell said. “Even as you’re walking here, Mary and Shiloh probably saw so many people that we wouldn’t have seen before.”

Mitchell said the removal of the mask requirement on campus enables her to see people’s excitement when they see the dogs.

Justice said she’s learned a lot through overcoming difficulties during her time in the Buckeye Paws program, and she is amazed at seeing how the dogs can bring people together.

“We are all able to help each other in different ways, and this is just my way and best way of being able to give back because we really believe in the power of connectivity and the human spirit.”

Visits from the Buckeye Paws dogs can be requested by emailing BuckeyePaws@osumc.edu , according to the Buckeye Paws website .

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