STAFF Q&A/Anita Mastroieni

“It’s been really terrific,” Anita Mastroieni (G’99) said of the response to the Graduate Student Center (GSC) since the Locust Walk facility opened its doors in September 2001.

Every day, about 200 students pass through its doors to find study space, use its computers, watch events on TV, have a cup of coffee or spend some quality time with its unofficial quasi-resident dog, Chimay.

Chimay is Mastroieni’s half-Labrador, half-terrier pet, and the students who use the GSC aren’t the only ones comforted by her occasional presence. Twice a month, Chimay and her owner visit patients at Pennsylvania Hospital, where she performs volunteer service as a therapy dog for patients.

All of this is the result of some fortuitous accidents, as Mastroieni made clear in our interview, which took place with Chimay sitting in.

Q. How long have you had Chimay?
A.
About four years. We got her from the SPCA in August of 1998.

Q. Why did you get her?
A.
I didn’t want to get Chimay; my boyfriend wanted to get a dog. He travels a lot for his work, and so he was reluctant to get a dog because he never had anyone to watch the dog when he left town. And I said, If you get a dog, I’ll watch her when you leave town.

So the first time he went on a business trip, I loved her so much I never gave her back. And he ended up having to marry me to get his dog back. [laughter]

Q. How did you come up with her name?
A.
It’s an exotic Belgian beer. What we like to tell people is that we gave her an exotic name because, having come out of the SPCA, she had abandonment issues, and we wanted to boost her self-esteem with a fancy name, but the real story is that we were drinking it when we named her.

Q. When did you start bringing her to work?
A.
Almost immediately when I started the job at the GSC. When we established the Graduate Center, we were looking to create a very homey environment for students that they would feel comfortable in—serving coffee to them, for example, is a way to do that. And I thought that bringing the dog in would also help students to feel at home. And we had several students, we still do, who have assistance dogs.

So in order to continue to create that homey environment, I thought it would be a good thing to bring [Chimay] in, and she really loves it. She goes downstairs and she hangs out with the students and everybody fusses over her and at lunchtime she’s mooching and everybody gives her snacks.

So it’s a good deal for her, she gets lots of attention, and the students really like it. Especially students who have had to leave their pets behind when they came to Penn.

Q. How long have you been making the hospital visits?
A.
We started in January, so it’s been about three months now. [Chimay had to be trained as a therapy dog before they could participate in Pennsylvania Hospital’s program; she completed her training last October.]

Q. What do therapy dogs do?
A.
A volunteer coordinator at the hospital establishes which units we will visit when we arrive and goes around to the patients and finds out which [ones] would like to be visited by a dog. Then we’ll go from room to room and spend from a few minutes to a little while longer with each patient. I go in the mornings, which is especially useful because that’s when patients aren’t getting visitors.

In the hospital as in the Graduate Center, it’s an institutional setting—if you’re in that setting a long time, it’s depressive. Bringing a dog in makes it feel more homey and relaxing for people.

Q. Do you see the same patients each time?
A.
No, because Chimay and I go about every other week, and usually, patients, thankfully, aren’t in the hospital that long.

The reason I chose Pennsylvania Hospital to visit with Chimay is that’s where I was treated for cancer four years ago, and I was really very pleased with the care I received there. And I thought to myself that when I felt better, which took a while, that I’d like to volunteer there, so knowing she was a good volunteer and my wanting to give back to Pennsylvania [Hospital] led us to volunteer there.

Q. What are the benefits to patients of having a dog visit?
A.
In some sense, it’s similar to what I hope she does for graduate students. Patients have to leave their dogs at home, so they miss their pets. And so they get to spend a little time with a pet in the hospital. That’s sort of an obvious one.

Less obvious is, it’s very calming to pet an animal. Your blood pressure goes down and you’re just—you’re less stressed. And mentally, too, it gives people a chance to have a visitor, both me and the dog, and that always cheers you up when you’re in the hospital.

Q. Does she ever play Frisbee with the students?
A.
She’s not a real athletic dog, I have to admit. She doesn’t even like to fetch. I mean, she’ll chase a ball and come back without it.

But I have found from talking to other people who own dogs that the kinds of dogs that are good fetchers and Frisbee players are not the kind of dogs you can take to visit [people] because they’re too hyper. So it’s a disappointment to my husband, who wanted the kind of dog that he could take to the beach, but she’s just a little too laid back for that.

Originally published on April 3, 2003