Pet platforms: Professional pup Dr. Isa improves student-teacher connection, student mental health

A medium-sized white dog stands in front of a vibrant blue lake, surrounded by mountains.
Dr. Isa, Keck Science Department biology professor Diane Thomson’s dog, enjoys outdoor adventures and belly rubs. (Courtesy: Diane Thomson)

Click. Dr. Isa sticks her face in a large container of yogurt, determined to lick it clean. Click. Dr. Isa slips down a slide. Click. Dr. Isa stares longingly at a sugar doughnut, a pane of glass between the two.

Dr. Isa’s Facebook page documents this educated dog’s antics, whether in the office of her owner Diane Thomson, biology professor in the Keck Science Department, or in the mountains of Colorado. 

“She’s a very bottom-line dog,” Thomson said. “Her world is pretty simple. It boils down to, ‘When am I getting fed next? Do I get to dig a hole now? Can I go back to sleep?’”

The “about” section of Isa’s page details crucial information about the “Canis lupus familiaris,” including her various pastimes: “My hobbies are eating, sleeping, shedding, digging, rolling and snoring. I am a union dog. I get many [compliments] from strangers about how cute I look, because strangers do not have to carry me when I refuse to move, clean up my hair and put up with stolen lunches.”

The mastermind behind the operation, Thomson’s partner Derek Stevens, created the page about seven years ago, shortly after they adopted Isa.

“She does a lot of goofy things that periodically inspire us to take pictures,” Thomson said. 

Isa loves playing in the snow — a rare substance in Claremont — so Stevens and Thomson often post pictures and videos of her bounding through white winter landscapes, as well as other outdoor vacation adventures.

For example, in one photo, Isa stands proudly atop a boulder, surrounded by a glittering Sierra Nevada lake.

“There’s one that makes her look like a rugged wilderness dog, which is pretty funny because she is really not a rugged wilderness dog,” Thomson said. “She’s much more like a ‘I’m kind of tired of walking on this trail now. Are you going to pick me up and carry me the rest of the way?’ kind of dog.”

To assist with the pawfessional’s networking, Stevens also made her business cards, which Thomson handed out to students.

“It kind of took off from there,” Thomson said. “Of course, she, like all the campus dogs, is much loved by students who are coming in because they miss their own dogs, and just because if you like dogs, being around a dog is a great way to relax and kind of cheer up on a tough day.”

After Keck adopted a dog-friendly policy and Thomson started bringing Isa to work more, Thomson realized how much Isa’s presence meant to students. 

“I started bringing her to work even more than I had before, in part because it was clear it really made the atmosphere in my office and my classes feel more like a family,” she said. “I still do think it helps break the ice a lot with new students who don’t know me, because they come in and see I have this dog, and how bad can I be, really? The dog is acting like I’m a nice person, so maybe they can trust me, too.”

As Isa has her own nameplate on Thomson’s office door, students come by to seek advice from the “PhDog.”

A white dog stands up to sniff a counter covered in dog treats.
Dr. Isa examines some snacks at the supermarket. (Courtesy: Diane Thomson)

“Sometimes students will come by and, and say, ‘Oh, I just wanted to see Dr. Isa,’” Thomson said. “But when we start talking a little bit, it turns out maybe they wouldn’t mind talking a little bit with a faculty adviser as well. I’ve really appreciated how much of a difference it seems to make in terms of mental health support and just feeling like campus is more of a home environment for students.”

Even in a virtual environment, Isa helps Thomson form a sense of family in her classes. This fall, Thomson created a Google Slides presentation for her and her students to share photos and information about themselves. Seeing that Thomson included photos of Isa, students posted photos of their pets as well.

“It’s really interesting to me how often students will connect their sense of home back to their animals,” she said. “So not as much necessarily, ‘This is where I went to high school,’ or even, ‘This is what city I grew up in,’ but, ‘This is a member of my family that I feel really comfortable sharing a picture with online.’” 

Long after students graduate, Isa continues to facilitate connection between them and Thomson. 

“I didn’t think at the time when Derek started posting on that page that I would end up with all these students who were still posting about her years after they graduated,” she said. 

As a professor, Thomson especially appreciates this virtual community.

“For any professor, I think there’s this wonderful sense of generations of students having passed through. At this point, I’m getting to the stage where I wish it wasn’t quite so many generations — time seems to be going by a little faster than you like to think about,” Thomson said, laughing. 

“But it’s really rewarding — there’s this sense of continuity. And on a tough day, it’s really nice to see a reminder like, ‘Yeah, there’s this whole group of students out there who passed through a course that I taught or worked in my lab, and they’re still out there doing cool things.’”

Isa did not respond to a request for comment. Instead, she rolled over and begged for a belly rub.

“This is one of the things that reliably charms the heck out of everybody who meets Isa,” Thomson said.

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