New Student and Transition Programs director trains therapy dog for patients and students

Clara with a new student orientation group

As director of New Student and Transition Programs, Roxanne Neal knows just how to make new Bruins feel comfortable and cared for during the sometimes difficult transition to college.

Now, it seems, she’s passed on those skills to a protégé – but not a human one.

Neal’s three-year-old yellow Labrador named Clara is a newly certified therapy dog. Together, the two bring smiles and comfort to hospital patients, medical staff and even UCLA students who need a few snuggles from a furry friend to get through a tough day.

Neal started training Clara in obedience when she was just five months old. Her potential as a therapy dog was apparent from the beginning, like when she didn’t even flinch while training next to a boisterous herd of cattle on the ranch where she was born. Last year, Neal began researching therapy dog certification, which is offered through a program called Pet Partners.

Neal said she was partly inspired by her mother, who interacted with a therapy dog at UCLA Medical Center while recovering from knee and hip surgery. Though her mother was never big on dogs, Neal saw how the dog lifted her spirits.

“She really responded to this dog hanging out and being really sweet to everyone. He would just go check on all the patients, and I thought that was a great thing,” Neal said. “People just transform around the dogs.”

The certification process includes a handler course for the human partner, a team evaluation during which the dog demonstrates that it can follow commands and stay calm in unexpected situations, and shadowing a real team in a hospital. Once the team passes a final evaluation, they are ready to start volunteering. For Clara, the process took about eight months; she passed in August.

Roxanne Neal and Clara

Neal and Clara now visit Providence St. John’s Health Center two or three times a month for up to two hours at a time. Upon arrival, they check in with a volunteer coordinator who gives them their room assignments for the day – either a designated floor or patients who have requested a visit. Inside the patient’s room, Clara usually sits on a chair or on the floor next to the patient so the patient can pet her.

“She loves the human interaction. She loves people and the attention and petting,” Neal said. “[With] one patient I put Clara on the chair, and Clara leaned forward with her head on the bed and the patient started petting her and talking softly and Clara just melted. She knows how to take it all in.”

The medical staff are always just as excited as the patients to see Clara, Neal said, and she makes sure they have their snuggles with Clara too. Their last visit was on Thanksgiving morning, which she said felt extra meaningful.

Clara isn’t just a fixture at St. John’s, however – Neal has started bringing her to work too. Clara has become a mascot of sorts for the thousands of freshman and transfer Bruins who attend new student orientation programs during the summer, and many orientation groups even request to have Clara in their group photo. She also brought stress relief to the Hill during midterms and finals this quarter.

Neal said students homesick for their own pets find comfort in showering Clara with affection.

“She was on so many Snapchats,” Neal said. “I joke that she thinks her name is ‘Pretty.’”

As she enters her 30th year with NSTP, Neal said she enjoys putting the skills she’s honed at work to use in a new environment where it’s all about Clara.

“Communication skills and talking to people, that’s literally my job. Being able to do that through my dog who I love gives me a different way to connect with people and do it in a way that really changes the environment a lot,” Neal said. “People that don’t normally want to socialize with a volunteer, they’ll just pet the dog, and that seems to be enough.”