UTM student mental health at forefront of recent town and gown partnership

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By Lorcan McCormick

Post Associate Editor

Clint Riley makes an impression; it’s not driven by an air to dominate your attention, if anything he seems predisposed to the get along to move along attitude, nor is it a business tactic to forward his economic agendas. Interesting people make an impression, and whatever description one would wish to lend Clint Riley, he is undoubtedly interesting: he’s a potter, he runs a local bed and breakfast, and he breeds Bernedoodles. Once upon a time he even was a bouncer. 

Bernedoodles are a breed between Bernese Mountain Dogs and Poodles; their athleticism and IQ are top notch, and the relative short life span of the Bernese is evened out by the lengthy spans of Poodles. 

Clint had bred Black Labs in college, but it was his mother who began his relationship with Bernedoodles, “Clint, I want you to be a guardian parent.” Cathy Barnett, his mother, breeds Bernedoodles in Paducah, Ky.; Clint and Cathy work in tandem taking turns alternating litters and by Clint’s own admission, “I’m not in it to be rich.” 

He enjoys accentuating the, “Bernie,” in Bernedoodle, a quality which has caught on with Shannon Deal who bought Doc and Dolly from Clint, but we’re skipping ahead in our journey. 

Clint explains the process which goes into his Bernedoodles; F1B – first generation – are back bred from a poodle and a Bernedoodle, and F2 have two Bernedoodle parents. It is key in the breeding process to have an F1B parent and an F2 – second generation – parent to bring out the poodle qualities; his dog Tuition is F1B, and his dog Scout is F2. The current crop are all F2, with the intended goal they are no shed, hypoallergenic, and tri-color, “it’s like people hair, you brush them and you bathe them.” Mini-Bernies are specifically what Clint deals in, “minis are better for allergies.” Cathy, meanwhile, specializes in Micro Mini Bernedoodles. The objective is for all of Clint’s dogs to be no shed, among other goals.

Tui, the leading lady for Clint, was brought from Michigan by his mother from Bearclaw Bernedoodles. Tui stands for Tuition, a nod to her role in helping pay for Clint’s son’s college tuition, although Tui’s ties to the academic world would be destined to only grow deeper. Clint surmises his goals casually, “they’re mutts I am raising to be awesome dogs.”

Clint’s mutts made a case for achieving objective success with Shannon Deal, who in any event was only planning on one dog, “but Clint said you know what’s better than one dog? Two.” Miss Doc and Dolly, progeny of Tuition and Clint’s other Bernedoodle Scout, are referred to as the UT Martin “Dogtors” although for now they might be better classified as med students. 

The dogs are not fully-trained therapy animals yet, though they have already started participating in counseling sessions when appropriate. Some benefits have been seen by their presence, “people have come in and love having dog time,” says Jenifer Hart Clinical Coordinator of Counseling at Student Health Services, “there are lots of studies out there that pets lower blood pressure and anxiety.”

Jenifer has an extensive history in grief counseling dating back to becoming involved in graduate school with the Good Grief Camp in Memphis; the camp did in fact receive permission from Charles Schultz to use the Peanuts branding which subsequently adds a touch of levity to the subject of grief. “

People are like a triangle,” Jenifer says, “and you have to think of all three sides of the triangle: the body, the mind, and the spirit.” Miss Doc and Dolly have been allowed to sit in on some of Jenifer’s counseling sessions: sometimes they’ll sit on the couch, sometimes they’ll lay on the floor with the student, or sometimes they’ll all lay on the floor together, it varies from all described and more depending on the end goal of the therapy session. “Sometimes our role is like an investigator but our job is not to focus on the job but the solution.” 

The Dogtors are still growing into their role, and are often confined to Shannon’s office. On a slow day they may come out to mosey around the office, Miss Doc has a shy disposition and keeps mostly to herself underneath the receptionist desk, while Dolly has a more extroverted demeanor. Clint described her as, “having a kind of clown face,” which played into her receiving the name Dolly. 

Miss Doc’s name is a nod to the donor who partially funds the therapy dog program whose nickname is Doc. The dogs have training vests on them the majority of the time; when the vests are off, they know it is playtime and are given the freedom to rough house and enjoy themselves more. The end goal is for the dogs to be available for presence in counseling sessions on a routine basis, though Jenifer comments as a clinician she would not have the dogs in on first visits. 

Shannon Deal is the Director of UTM’s Student Health & Counseling Services and the owner of Doc and Dolly. The idea for therapy animals stemmed from Monte Belew, the former campus police chief, who had a dog he called the therapy dog who routinely had positive interactions with students. 

College students can broadly be interpreted as living inside their own heads, carrying themselves with a slight tension or anxiety stemming from day-to-day campus life. When we exist inwardly, we tend to only open up around what makes us comfortable, and generally we find this in friends, but an adorable dog or an unexpectedly amusing sight can offer its own detour into comfort. 

When walking them on campus, Shannon notices more students are apt to stop to not only pet them, but exchange a pleasantry with her. In their brief forays into classrooms, they have shown positive results in bringing people out of their shells, “we had been in a classroom and we had done a classroom visit, I encountered a student who was in that classroom while I was walking Dolly and she asked as were talking how can I receive counseling and therapy. She said I would never have approached you without Dolly, and so I think that’s the power of them as ambassadors.” 

Cathy worked for UTM, and it was through Cathy that Shannon was told Clint’s litter would be coming first. Shannon does not demure from expressing love for the overlooked whether it be on a human or animal love, a quality which surely informs her work. 

“I don’t want to mislead anybody, any dog has the potential to be a therapy dog if you train them,” Shannon stresses, “it hurt me initially to go to a breeder instead of an animal shelter but the intentionality is what we were looking for in the program.” Hypoallergenic, no shed, and additionally given early behavioral and bathroom training habits by Clint, these qualities were necessary for the ability to interact with a diverse array of students. 

As lovable as the growingly known Dogtors are, both Jenifer and Shannon express health and mental wellness come foremost in their work, “my biggest thing is whether seeing the dogtors or not do not hesitate to seek out help,” a remark made by Jenifer, but mirrored by Shannon. 

A documentary was referenced which followed a therapy dog used in a process to get a patient to a place of comfort for them to perform the tasks required of them; the emphasis of the story was time and patience is needed in any recovery process. The emphasis can be applied to the directive of the Health & Counseling Services as a whole: in their mission to help improve student’s lives at school and in private, to inform the public about necessary awareness, and yes, in their journey to take these lovable puppies and turn them into fully fledged therapy dogs. 

Should anyone be curious about their Bernedoodles, Cathy Barnett has a social media page and Clint can be reached through the contact provided by Pecan Grove Bed & Breakfast. For more information regarding health and mental wellness, please contact the Health & Counseling Services office at 731-881-7750 or the SHCS Crisis Line operating 24/7 at 731 881-7743. 

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