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LSU College of Agriculture Instructor, Students Create Vests for Animal Assisted Therapy Dogs

The LSU College of Agriculture's Residential College has found a unique project that keeps with the theme of reducing its overall carbon footprint, while also helping some of its four-legged friends in the process.


Freshmen apparel design students Ellyn McGlauchlin, left, and Kristin Ament worked with instructor Elva Bourgeois to transform unused tote bags from the College of Agriculture into vests to be worn by dogs in the Agriculture Residential College's Animal Assisted Therapy program.
Photo courtesy of Elva Bourgeois

Members of the college's administration, faculty and two students in the residential college program began work last semester to transform tote bags donated by LSU Residential Life into vests for dogs in the college's Animal-Assisted Therapy program, or AAT.

"We felt this is a good way to both identify the dogs used in the AAT program, as well as to get the word out about this program and how it can benefit the community," said Elva Bourgeois, undergraduate coordinator of human ecology and instructor in the college.

Joining Bourgeois in the venture were freshman apparel design students Kristin Ament of Prairieville and Ellyn McGlauchlin of Katy, Texas – both students in the Agriculture Residential College's Food, Fitness and Fashion track.

"Sewing the dog vests was actually quite relaxing," Ament said. "I really enjoy sewing in my free time, so I was glad I could put my time to use."

"Being able to take part in a project that I knew would be helping others was really gratifying," McGlauchlin said. "I also really enjoyed myself, which I guess is a good thing, since I'm majoring in apparel design, and sewing together an end product is a big part of the industry."

A vested interest

The project came about when Betsy Garrison, associate dean of the LSU College of Agriculture and rector for the Agriculture Residential College, decided that the AAT program needed some sort of clothing article on the dogs that would identify them with LSU and the College of Agriculture. She asked Bourgeois, with the help of her students, to assist in creating such a uniform.

"We started looking at patterns, but couldn't find anything we really liked," Bourgeois said.

Garrison said that she then thought about deconstructing the tote bags, which were not being used, and turning them into vests for the dogs. She added that including the Agriculture Residential College in the process would give students a unique opportunity.


The tote bags used to make the vests were donated by LSU Residential Life. Bourgeois said the bags were an ideal medium to create the vests because of their ease to clean and their distinctive visual features.
Photo courtesy of Elva Bourgeois

"The College of Agriculture goes from apparel design to zoology, and we have students in the Residential College that want to be everything from veterinarians to fashion designers," she said. "This was a great way to take all of that into account and join forces between two of the career tracks within the college."

McGlauchlin said that the process of creating the vests was fairly simple, but still had its moments of difficulty.

"Kristin and I were given the raw cut pieces and a sketch of how the vests should be constructed," she said. "Once we had gotten the pieces, we pinned both logos to the fabric and then sewed them on. After they were taken care of, we cut the siding to fit the edges properly and then pinned those pieces into place as well. These were the pieces that I feel were the trickiest part because it's about a quarter of an inch wide, and you have to make sure to catch both sides of the siding, so you have to make sure you pin in on really well. When we finished that, all that was left was cutting the straps, sewing the ends so they would be sturdier and sewing the straps on properly in an hourglass shape for the most strength, so that the vests wouldn't fall apart when put on an energetic pet."

Bourgeois said she felt the bags were an excellent medium because of their ease to clean and their distinctive purple color, as well having the LSU and College of Agriculture logos displayed prominently. She added that the vests can be made to fit dogs of any size and shape, since the breeds of dog used in the program vary.

"They're very recognizable," she said of the vests. "When you see them, you know right away that it's LSU. That's what we wanted to achieve. Plus, it's a great way to recycle material we already have, instead of incurring cost to purchase vests or raw material. That helps toward the Res College's mission of diminishing its carbon footprint."

The first dog to receive one of the new vests was Agnes, who belongs to LSU Chancellor Michael Martin and his wife, Jan. The Martins rescued Agnes while they lived in New Mexico, prior to coming to Baton Rouge.

"This is a great program that the College of Agriculture offers both to its students and to our area medical treatment facilities and senior living communities," Martin said of the AAT program. "Having these new vests lets people see that LSU works in our community in ways that some may not have ever realized. Agnes will proudly wear her vest in support of this wonderful endeavor."


LSU Chancellor Michael Martin is photographed at his residence holding his dog, Agnes, who was the first dog to receive one of the new vests. The vests can be made to fit dogs of any size and shape, since the breeds of dog used in the program vary.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

In addition to wearing the vests on therapy visits, Garrison added that the AAT dogs will also don their new attire as they take part in the Capital Area Animal Welfare Society's 2012 Mystic Krewe of Mutts Parade. This year's parade takes place on Sunday, Jan. 29, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in downtown Baton Rouge.

"We're also looking to have the dogs wear them during the college's next Parade of Species event, and maybe even during the next Homecoming parade," Garrison said.

Both Ament and McGlauchlin said they felt the vests will have a positive impact not only the college's AAT program, but the university overall.

"These vest will help to show which dogs are designated to be in the AAT program," Ament said. "It might make those who are being assisted feel a little more comfortable around the animals knowing that they have been trained."

"My personal hope is that when people see both the LSU and the College of Agriculture logos on the vests, they will realize that the College of Agriculture is really doing so much to help out in the local community," McGlauchlin said. "I also think that seeing students helping others purely for the good it brings to them might lead to more people helping out for the good of everyone in our community."

Bourgeois lauded the efforts of Ament and McGlauchlin, who volunteered their time to sew the vests together from the decomposed bags.

"They stepped up to help with this project," she said. "This was a great way for them to obtain service hours as part of their track. They should be able to help get a few more made in the spring semester as well."

Plus, Garrison said, having an abundance of bags means that more vests can be made, if needed.

"We have about 100 bags, which is plenty," she said. "So if we give them to people working with the program, and the vests don't come back, we can always make more."

What is AAT?

The college's Animal Assisted Therapy program is the signature program of the Agriculture Residential College, Garrison said.

"Many of these students want to be veterinarians," she added. "A program such as this gets them involved with how animals can help people."

Animal-Assisted Therapy is a goal-directed intervention in which an animal — in the case of the LSU College of Agriculture's program, a dog — is used as an integral part of the medical treatment process. AAT has been used to establish a human-animal bond and promote good health and the recovery of illness and some diseases.

First documented in 1962, some of the benefits of AAT have been found in educational, physical, cognitive and psychological rehabilitations. It is used in operating rooms, intensive care units, pediatric centers and with psychiatric patients, particularly those diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. AAT has been found to decrease blood pressure during stressful activities in older hypertensive patients, to provide psychological benefits for children diagnosed with autism by helping to increase social behavior and has been used in the rehabilitation of inmates.

Pairing dogs with students in the residential college, the LSU College of Agriculture's AAT program covers steps for training the students and the dogs, evaluation and the types of dogs that can take part in the program. Topics cover preparing the animals for visits, identifying and decreasing stress in the animals, animal health and safety, special needs of patients, interacting with people, facility health and safety codes and patient confidentiality. Classes are taught by Diane Sylvester, the director of the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine's Tiger Human Animal Therapy Service, or HATS, program.

Evaluations also test the handler and animal working as a team. These tests include the ability of the handler student to control the dog and the dog's behavioral skills and simulating conditions that may occur during the visit and interaction with the evaluator.

As required by health facilities and the Delta Society, a national therapy and service animal organization to whose requirements the LSU program adheres, the dogs have to pass a physical exam, be current on vaccinations and be free of internal and external parasites.

To learn more about the LSU College of Agriculture's Animal Assisted Therapy program, including how to volunteer a dog to take part, email lsuarc.aat@gmail.com or contact Garrison at 225-578-2081 or email hcgarr@lsu.edu.

For college and community

Creation of the vests was made possible through the efforts of the LSU College of Agriculture's Residential College program, of which both Ament and McGlauchlin are students.

The Agriculture Residential College is a residence hall open to all first-year students in the LSU College of Agriculture. The residential college focuses on "Ag Leadership," a reoccurring theme throughout this program. By taking several core courses together, students will more quickly form relationships with classmates and professors both inside the classroom and out. By living in a "mini-campus" atmosphere within the larger LSU campus, students achieve a greater sense of awareness, cultural competence, leadership and community.

"The Ag College makes it a little easier to transition because they teach you the many skills you need to be a responsible, yet sociable young adult," Ament said. "The programs they offer help you to build your confidence in yourself and to make connection with many different types of people. This isn't a grueling task though. They make it fun and easy with plenty of opportunities."

"I think that projects like this one are great because I felt like I was helping out my classmates, my professors and the community by doing something that I really love," McGlauchlin said. "It also gave me an opportunity to give back to the College of Agriculture, which has given all of the students who are a part of it so many events that help freshman become oriented with campus life and to make friends."

Garrison said that while the AAT program was aimed at pre-veterinary students, any student within the Agriculture Residential College can take part.

For more information on the LSU College of Agriculture, including the Ag Res College, visit www.coa.lsu.edu.