Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Divine Canines celebrates 20 years of helping people with therapy dogs

Courtesy Bells and Whistles Productions

For just a few minutes, the thoughts of a looming exam, an approaching deadline or a presentation fade away in the presence of an adorable dog. Even after the pups leave, the tranquility remains. 

In 2004, Lee Manix and Tori Keith founded Divine Canines, a nonprofit organization dedicated to training volunteers and their dogs, turning them into therapy teams that visit locations at no expense. They started with just five dog-handling teams, and now, according to their website, approximately 175 active teams visit more than 120 facilities across Central Texas and help thousands of people. In their time of service, Divine Canines has trained more than 600 dogs.

“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years,” Keith said. “It really goes back to the volunteers. The people who do this are so high-quality and dedicated. They love dogs, they love people and they’re the ones that make it work.”

Before Max Woodfin became executive director of Divine Canines in 2013, the organization almost exclusively visited places like senior living centers, hospitals, psychiatric facilities and elementary school reading programs. Shortly after he started with the organization, groups within colleges and universities like UT began reaching out. 

“Some volunteers thought (visiting universities) would be fun and wouldn’t be as hard as going to places like a hospital,” Woodfin said. “I schedule (the visits) as much to benefit our volunteers as to benefit the students because it really does give (the volunteers) a more fun visit with their dog.”

Kyle Clark, Assistant Dean for Advising and Director of Student Support at Moody, works with Divine Canines to provide students with a break during exams. 

“Just being in the space (with the dogs) is so calming and relaxing,” Clark said. “They’re so chill, and you can feel the stress oozing off of you, even if it’s for a short period of time. We’ve had some (students) that just come and stand in the room, and that was enough for them.”

Scientists at Washington State University have shown that, in addition to improving a student’s mood, interactions with a dog or cat can significantly reduce cortisol, a stress hormone. Sarah Thomas, a volunteer and chair of the board at Divine Canines, said the dogs don’t just provide relief from exams but are also a reminder of home. 

“A lot of students have dogs at home that they haven’t seen in a while, and that’s probably super hard on them,” Thomas said. “Even if it’s not seeing their dog, it’s seeing a dog, and that’s probably really heartwarming for them.”

Divine Canines provides services at no cost thanks to fundraisers like Barks for Beers, which Woodfin said brings in 70-85% of their operating budget and celebrates its 10th anniversary in May. These services provide lasting impacts and memorable stories for the volunteers and clients. 

“My favorite part of volunteering with Divine Canines is making a connection with the clients,” said Erin Van Landingham, a volunteer and chair-elect of Divine Canines. “They come to life when the dogs are around, and we just hope that we brighten somebody’s day.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the number of active dog-handling teams and has been corrected to reflect that. The Texan regrets this error.

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