SRU offering peer academic coaching with help from therapy dogs


Student with a therapy dog

Slippery Rock University student Abbie Kugler is joined by Hamish, a golden retriever, during a peer academic coaching session that is part of a pilot program that incorporates therapy dogs.

April 19, 2023

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Sometimes college students need a helping hand ... or a helping paw. Through the peer academic coaching program, Slippery Rock University has long offered help to students who need extra academic assistance, but it recently added a canine component. "Peer Coaching with a Pup" is being piloted this semester by SRU's Success Coaching team. Students who opt into the program are joined by both peer academic coaches and therapy dogs.

Success coaching helps students transition to college, establish goals, build relationships and make academic progress by helping them manage their time and habits, implement learning strategies and prepare for exams. SRU has three success coaches and 13 peer student academic coaches, who meet with students in one-on-one sessions or in group workshops. All peer academic coaches are certified through the College Reading and Learning Association's International Peer Educator Training Program.

"Academic coaching is a relatively new functional area of college campuses that is important for student persistence," said Emily McClaine, assistant director for academic success. "Every campus is defining their coaching differently, but I have not seen a crossover between academic coaching and therapy dogs anywhere else."

SRU offers animal-assisted intervention academic programs through its Social Work and Recreational Therapy departments that teach students how to use therapy dogs for crisis response for trauma victims, for nursing home patients, or to treat people with anxiety. The "Peer Coaching with a Pup," however, is not a therapeutic intervention.

"It's more of a way to ease academic anxiety to the point they can have a conversation and be a little more comfortable," McClaine said. "The therapy dogs make the sessions less punitive, especially when students are coming in to talk about their academic concerns. There's just something about having a puppy around that makes it a warm space."

Peer academic coaching sessions typically occur in Bailey Library but coaches are using a satellite location in the McKay Education Building for Peer Coaching with a Pup sessions. Known as the Success Studio, this location was created to reach more students and is tailored for coaching sessions, with a whiteboard and comfortable furniture.

Abbie Kugler, a freshman exercise science major from Irwin, encountered problems earlier this semester and was one of the students who benefited from peer academic coaching. Kugler was considering changing her major and even withdrawing from SRU entirely. She was referred to McClaine and then met with one of the peer academic coaches.

"One of the reasons why I came to SRU is because how much people here care about you as a student," Kugler said. "My grades were tanking, and I knew that I needed help. The coaches helped me so much because I now realize I can (succeed). Since I started, my mental health and my grades have improved. I'm starting to learn how to study better and I have less test anxiety."

After three initial sessions in March, Kugler decided to sign up for Peer Coaching with a Pup. She met with her peer coach Cari McCarty, a senior secondary education-English major from Wyalusing, as well as Hamish, a golden retriever who is registered through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

"Because I'm a dog lover, this made me feel less stressed and I feel like I can relax a little bit more," Kugler said. "It's also nice to have another student helping me as a peer coach. A student is more relatable and might better understand what I'm going through."

In two sessions, one with and without a dog, McCarty helped Kugler with everything from managing her schedule to exercises that helped her change from fixed mindset to a growth mindset as it relates to her academics.

"My job is to assess and not make judgments," McCarty said. "I ask questions to see where she is and the ways that she wants to grow. Last year, I was taking a really hard English class and I had this pattern of academic anxiety, which she's been going through now. I was able to help her get from wanting to withdraw and feeling stuck to having a growth mindset and wanting to make changes to improve."

Peer academic coaching has also grown at SRU, both in terms of participation and feedback. More than 260 peer academic coaching sessions took place from September 2022 to March 2023, a 300% increase compared to all of 2021-22. Almost all survey responses from participants either strongly agree or agree with the effectiveness of peer academic coaching, and early indicators from pre- and post-evaluations of participants and non-participants show positive results.

More information about Success Coaching at SRU, included how to schedule an appointment, is available on the Success Coaching webpage. The office can also be reached by contacting or 724.738.2011.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854  |