Fun on 4 Paws

MERCED — It's a typical wags-to-riches story.

Seven-year-old Minnie, a black Pomeranian, came from humble beginnings. She was a breeding dog and spent most of her young days in a cage, until her current owner, Lisa Saroyan, rescued her.

When she got Minnie, the dog was underweight, showed socialization problems, harbored a thyroid condition and needed 11 teeth pulled, Saroyan recalled.

Now fast-forward a few years. Minnie is somewhat of a celebrity in the therapy dog circuit. She hosts 1,338 Facebook friends and was the first reading therapy dog allowed in the Fresno Unified School District.

On Thursday, Minnie became one of the first therapy dogs at the University of California at Merced to help students relax before their finals, which begin today.

UC Merced freshman Carolina Jimenez said she slept for only five minutes Wednesday night because she was working on take-home finals.

"I'm really tired, and I've been typing all night," she said.

She saw the flier for the dog therapy event at the school gym and thought it would be a nice way to unwind. "I miss my dogs at home," Jimenez said.

"(These dogs are) so adorable. I like how they are all different types of dogs."

Roughly 10 students at a time constantly circulated through a room off the university library and cooed over the six therapy dogs from 4 Paws Therapy Dogs in Fresno.

Greg Spurgeon, assistant director of Health Services for UC Merced, said he brought the program to campus after learning of a similar program at UC San Diego.

"It's been shown that animals can reduce heart rates and lower stress levels," he said. "We like to do positive things to impact student wellness, and everyone likes animals."

There are some pet owners in Merced interested in starting a dog therapy chapter, he said.

The most important factor in training a therapy dog is temperament, said Dianna Bolen, owner of therapy dog Sierra, a brindled Sheltie.

The dogs also need to know basic obedience and commands such as sit, stay and leave it, Bolen said.

From service to therapy

Bolen, who lost her sense of taste and smell, once used Sierra as a service dog but that she no longer needs the help.

"She helped me in my therapy, so why not have her help other people," Bolen said. "(Sierra) loves being a therapy dog more than service dog because she loves the petting."

And now people such as UC Merced sophomore Lauren Edwards profit from Sierra's presence.

"It's nice to have a moment of peace before finals start," Edwards said while petting Sierra. "I wish we had more of these events. During mid-terms, students also get stressed."

Dogs can be certified to become therapy dogs through Therapy Dogs International.

Many of the certified dogs visit senior centers or schools.

Minnie helps students by watching them while they read, Saroyan said. "The idea is that dogs don't judge people," she added.

A student's best friend.