Wellness is her business: Checking in with Karla, the therapy dog

November 20, 2023

Campus Life

After years of resisting calls from her sons to get a dog, Lori Schuyler, vice president for Planning and Policy, brought home a puppy during the early days of the pandemic. Karla, a standard poodle, turned out to be a comforting presence as her sons attended school on Zoom and struggled with being separated from their friends.

When the University of Richmond announced that its inaugural therapy dog, Emmett, would be leaving his post and the Well-Being Center would be looking for his replacement, Schuyler knew just the dog to turn to.

Karla started her post in February after she and Schuyler completed a series of training classes. In addition to regular obedience classes, Karla was also screened and trained to avoid dangers and remain calm when faced with surprising noises and movements.

“You have to make sure that the dog is going to be supportive of people,” Schuyler said. “That if something unexpected happens, the dog isn't going to overreact.”

After two semesters on the job, Karla has settled into her new routine. Every morning, when Schuyler announces, “It’s time to go to work,” Karla bounds out the front door and straight to the car. They commute together from Charlottesville and arrive at the Well-Being Center where Karla runs a few laps around the lawn and greets students before dashing inside to her post at the front desk.

Senior Will Emerson is one of Karla’s student handlers at the Well-Being Center. He says once students discover her behind the desk, they’re eager to visit and pet her. On walks around campus, they get stopped frequently for people to say hello. Karla also attends health and wellness events with staff from the Well-Being Center.

“The thing I hear a lot in my interactions with students is, ‘Oh my gosh, I miss my dog,’” Emerson said. “Karla always brings a smile to their faces, so I think that she fills that pet role for many members of our campus community.

“She seems to be really calming for the students who seek her out.”  

Schuyler said that while her father also works with therapy dogs — and she was aware of the important role they play in traumatic situations — having a campus dog wasn’t on her mind when they adopted Karla.

“My student development colleagues are so smart,” she said. “They thought of this when we were planning the Well-Being Center, and it’s so amazing to see how people’s shoulders relax and a smile comes across when they reach out to give Karla a scratch.

“She loves the attention, but it’s amazing how that little bit of interaction with a dog can be really comforting to people.”