The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is excited to announce the STEM Learning Lab’s hiring of Gracie Peter, a two-year-old Yellow Labrador Retriever, as the office’s “Lab Lab”, responsible for creating a welcoming environment and fostering relationships inside the lab.
Gracie, who started at UMass Dartmouth in September, brings her baccalaureate degree in basic obedience training, a master’s degree from the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) Canine Good Citizens program, and a doctorate in therapy from Dog B.O.N.E.S.
“Gracie works a full 40-hour work week in our office, which is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in-person Monday through Friday in the Science & Engineering (SENG) building, room 217, as well as by appointment after-hours on Zoom,” said Gracie’s human, and Assistant Director of the STEM Learning Lab, Chris Peter. “At the request of the professor, we also walk into classrooms 15 minutes before exams start to help reduce stress in the room.”
Gracie’s employment is written into the TRiO Student Support Service Program, a federal grant that supports the Academic Resource Center on campus, which houses the STEM Learning Lab, Business Center, and Student Support Specialist. The STEM lab aims to improve and advance STEM learning and education of UMass Dartmouth students to increase retention and graduation in fields such as Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics, Engineering, and Physics, and prepare students for careers in STEM fields. Though, Peter says the lab is open to anyone on campus.
“Research has shown that therapy dogs can help to reduce students’ anxiety and blood pressure, especially before exams,” said Peter. “Students feel more comfortable in the lab when in the presence of Gracie, who’s often the one to draw them in. Gracie is very excited to start accepting individual appointments with students starting next semester, and would like to thank Corinne Cortes and Sokratis Koumas, the mastermind behind all our efforts, for all of their help in making her employment a success.”
Outside of office hours in the STEM Learning Lab, you can also catch Gracie at various anti-stress events on campus.
“Therapy dogs are the heart of stress reduction days. They’re not for everyone, but it makes a lot of people think of home and feel comfortable.” said Kari Mofford, who organizes Stress-Less days at UMassD. “Therapy dogs brought to campus are a great way to lower stress and anxiety levels among students, but when dogs like Gracie come to campus every day and students get to know them more, that takes the feeling of comfortability to another level.”
Peter says that Gracie has always been a “people person” and that she has a keen sense of when students are in distress, and naturally goes to them to provide comfort.
“Students that come into our office will open up their problems to Gracie before they go to anyone else on campus,” said Peter. “They really feel like they’re at home when they’re in her presence and opening up to her gets the ball rolling on solving any dilemma they may have. She’s definitely making the most of her therapy degree.”
While students may be her focus, Gracie is happy to comfort anyone on campus. Sharon Allen, Student Support Specialist and part-time Lecturer, says she visits Gracie every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday before her 9 a.m. class.
“Meeting with Gracie brings me joy and relaxes me before the start of my day,” said Allen. “Chris has brought Gracie to my class to greet students a couple of times, and I’ve been pleased with all of the positive remarks students had about getting to pet Gracie. One student commented that seeing Gracie ‘made her morning.’ Gracie definitely has a positive and calming effect on everyone she meets.”
While at work at UMass Dartmouth, Gracie is pursuing her fourth degree at SouthCoast Dog Training and Care in Dartmouth, MA, owned by UMassD alum Sandy McConnell '97, to become a Diabetic Alert Dog (DAD) to aid her human. This training will take place over the course of two to three years.
“We’re training her to detect low and high blood-sugar levels, as diabetes runs in my family,” said Peter. “After establishing a baseline, she’ll be able to detect a change in organic compounds coming from my breath before I would even know anything is wrong and give me a signal. She has a great nose, and it’s amazing what dogs can do.
“Gracie is such a blessing to me, and her companionship leads to happier and healthier days, backed by research from the AKC. I’m happy to share her with the campus community, who she really helps build a rapport with. Having a safe and welcoming environment is important in learning theory, and Gracie is a source of love and emotional support that never lets anyone down.”
Students struggling with stress this finals season, or in general, are encouraged to visit Gracie in the STEM Learning Lab, or visit the university’s Counseling Center, located in the Auditorium Annex. The STEM Learning Lab is open for walk-in appointments Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To make an appointment with the Counseling Center, call (508) 999-8648, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For after-hours emergencies, call the crisis line at (508) 910-HELP.