In just eight months, he's become one of Drexel University's most popular staffers. If he's not meeting with students in his West Philadelphia office, he's making the rounds of university events: Study Palooza in Center City, a meet-and-greet at the law school, boot camp in the Recreation Center, where he also has his office.
"He loves his job," said Kathryn Formica, the university's coordinator of student fitness and wellness, of her office mate. "I think he's going for tenure."
This new employee is a dog, a Carolina blend with some shiba inu and corgi mixed in. His name is Jersey, and as his office nameplate attests, he is a certified therapy dog.
Jersey is one of the first on-site, year-round canine therapists at a U.S. college or university, Drexel says. Other higher education institutions have therapy animals that hang out on campus with official approval, or they host events that bring therapy animals to campus for cuddling. Some schools, such as Yale Law School, even have allowed for therapy animals to be borrowed like books from a library.
But Jersey is a little more official. He has office hours three days a week and a Drexel ID. He has a Facebook page and a fan following. Formica, who also cares for Jersey off-campus, keeps his appointment calendar. He averages about 10 visitors a week, she said. During exam periods, though, he'll meet with about 20 people a day.
"He's so popular," she said. "The students will actually e-mail me and say, 'Hey, can I come set up a time to come see Jersey today?' to make sure they get to see him."
While there are research papers and anecdotal evidence that proclaim the benefits of therapy animals, the truth is a little more murky, said James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine.
Most of the studies he's seen are lacking in one way or another: There are problems with data collection or controls or measurement methods. If you divide a study group into two sets and give one a live therapy animal, you can't give the other a stuffed toy as a placebo and hope no one notices.
"It's a difficult problem because it's hard to study," he said. "It's still very early days in terms of research findings."
That said, besides creating "a good feeling all around, like a morale boost," there are documented cases of animals drawing words from people who have not spoken in years, he said. The strongest evidence comes from pairing the animals with children with autism.
"We do know when [the children] interact with animals, there are changes in oxytocin, the trust or bonding hormone. If animals have the ability to trigger that, it's important for autistic children, who may be anxious in the presence of others," Serpell said. "But it's still vague."
Jersey has been busy from the beginning of the school year, starting with members of the freshman class.
"They were missing their homes and their families and their pets - it was great to have him here," Formica said. "You could see the emotion on their faces. They were comforted."
When Formica came up with the idea for a campus therapy dog last year, she didn't think administrators would go for it. But she began researching animals elsewhere and hosting events that brought certified therapy animals to campus. Students and school leaders liked having the animals around.
Formica contacted the Delaware County SPCA, where canine care worker Jason Venini was fostering Jersey, who came to the facility two months earlier with his name and a murky history. Venini thought Jersey would make a good therapy dog.
So last summer, Formica met with Venini and Jersey at least twice a week to put the dog through his paces. The training continued even after Jersey earned certification from Therapy Dog International.
"It's all about the dog's temperament and energy level. They need to be low energy, not too hyper or easily overstimulated," Venini said. "They need to be bombproof with obedience."
That said, Formica asks students to follow certain guidelines when they arrive for Jersey time: Don't knock because it sometimes prompts him to bark. When entering the office, look at her first, not Jersey. "That just teaches him he's not the king of the office and helps with other things, " she said. She advises them not to run at him but approach calmly. "People think therapy dogs can handle everything," she said. "They can't." Which is also why, because of the constant noise and flow of people, Formica sometimes has to put the "puppy break" sign on the door so he can rest and nap.
Jersey seemed comfortable during a recent Study Palooza event at Drexel's Center City campus. The twice-yearly programming aims to help students relax before final exams. (Drexel is on a quarter system, meaning that finals were in March.) There are free food and massages, counselors on-hand to teach meditation techniques, advisers to provide study tips. An art therapy/drawing station was meant to encourage creativity. A game of Jenga might stimulate metacognition.
Jersey was busy there, too, welcoming students in groups of two, at most. Formica and Venini stayed with him.
Addison McInnes, 23 and a senior nursing student, used to have a dog but lost the pet in a breakup about a year ago. She enjoyed her Jersey time.
"It was just relaxing, that kind of sense your own pet brings to you," she said. "You forget everything because you just want to fawn over the dog."
Another nursing student, Christina Bewersdorff, 23, said spending time with Jersey helped fill the void she feels since her own dog, a golden retriever/lab mix named Mango, is at the family home in Lancaster.
"I pet his ears, which I always do with my own dog, because they're so soft. That touch part is therapeutic," she said.
And what does Jersey get in return? Although he has health benefits through the university, he gets no salary.