Howl you doing, Huskers?
Neo, a therapy pup with TRIO programs is lending a paw and his notoriously calming presence this summer to welcome hundreds of first-year students during New Student Enrollment sessions.
His appearances at TRIO’s new student booth are a paw-sitive expansion to the support pup’s repertoire of services.
“Neo is kind of our magnet,” said Joyce Lehn, project director of TRIO’s Student Support Services and Neo’s owner. “He brings people to our booth and then we’re able to share about the program and get students to sign up. Some students who have already signed up for the program stop by the booth just to see him because he’s listed on our flyers as one of the services.”
The pup reflects TRIO’s mission to support and retain students by helping them feel like they have a place at Dear Old Nebraska U.
Lehn and Neo came as a package deal when Lehn returned to campus in 2020 after working 16 years at Lincoln Southwest High School. Having served as a source of comfort to Lehn’s family, Neo became a certified Canine Good Citizen and a registered therapy dog with Love on the Leash. Once certified, he worked with Lehn as a therapy dog at the high school before becoming a Big Red pup.
Neo loves to support students, and the students love him.
“From the first time I met Neo, I noticed just how easily students gravitated towards him,” said Aras Shakir, academic outreach specialist for TRIO student support services. “Neo has an overall calming aura about him which helps put people at ease and you’ll often find students sharing about themselves after they start petting Neo.”
Neo supports students by alleviating stress and overwhelm through play and pets. Students will often stop by in between classes and throw a football to Neo or sit down to relax and hold him. Sometimes students will request Neo’s presence at appointments. His presence will sometimes cause students to open up, allowing TRIO staff members to make proper referrals to CAPS and other campus entities to further assist students with their needs.
TRIO serves and supports first-generation and low-income through a variety of services. TRIO’s Student Support Services aims to retain students and support them through graduation.
“To support retention, we try to make the students feel that they have a place on campus where they fit in,” Lehn said. “Neo fits into that role because students will say ‘oh, I have a dog at home’ or ‘I wish I would have had a pet.’ It kind of gives them a little bit of extra encouragement and support where they know that they can come over and see him.”
It wouldn’t be too far off to say Neo was born to be a therapy dog. Lehn got Neo five years ago to accompany her mother when she moved into a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s.
“I would take him to the nursing home, and all the other residents really loved him too,” Lehn said. “We would go around and meet all the residents and he’d get to play with them. My mom was in hospice shortly after that. On the day that she died, Neo had never barked before, but he would go to the door in her room, and he would look up and down the hallway three times, and then he would bark. The hospice people said that they thought that’s a sign that my mom was going to pass that day. At lunchtime, I took him outside for a little break. A hospice nurse came outside and said it was not going to be much longer. He ran down the hallway to her room and she was lying in her bed, and she had her hands folded over you know, was resting in her bed. Neo wanted up on the bed, and he got up and put his little paws on her hand. Then he gave her a puppy kiss on each side of her cheek, and then she smiled and that was it.”
The hospice staff told Lehn that it was the easiest transition that they had ever witnessed, and suggested she train Neo as a therapy dog.
Once certified, Neo worked with Lehn at Lincoln Southwest High School, where he continued to comfort people.
“His specialty area was working with the students who had suicidal ideation,” Lehn said. “If they needed comfort, he would sit with them, and sometimes it could take up to three hours before a parent would come and pick them up or other arrangements would be made. He was great because he would just stay with them, he wouldn’t ask to get down or you know, want a break or anything because I think that he just sensed that they needed that.”
Now at the university, Neo loves to interact with and support students, as well as other university visitors and staff members. Outside of working hours, Neo loves to play with his sister, Trinity, who is admittedly “too much of a diva” to work as a therapy dog.
This summer, TRIO staff members have heard overwhelmingly positive feedback about Neo. This is the first time TRIO hosted a booth in lieu of one-on-one appointments, and they plan to continue doing so in the future, with Neo’s help.
In the fall, Neo will continue to brighten the days of everyone he encounters.
“During the school year, when he comes to the office, he’s very independent and he’ll take off on his own and check on everybody all up and down the hallway to make sure everybody’s there and to say his hellos before he comes back and settles in at our office. I think for the staff too he brings a smile to their faces.”