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Homesick students worried about being seen with teddy bears or toy llamas in pajamas now have a furry surrogate to hug at the University of Alaska Southeast.
The surrogate is Rio, a 5-year-old black Labrador, who often can be found snoozing at the feet of his owner, David Blair. Rio will live with Blair in the Housing Lodge, a gathering spot located between Banfield Hall and apartments allotted to returning upper-class students and students with families. This year's 250 resident students will flock to the lodge to play pool, gab around the snack bar, check their mail boxes and watch big-screen television. It is open 24 hours a day.
Blair found Rio four years ago in a pound in Montana and introduced him to hiking there. He's sure that Rio will take to the trails around Juneau like the proverbial duck to water.
"He will probably be the best exercised dog in Juneau," Blair said.
A mellow, agreeable companion, Rio is quiet indoors, but "ready to go" once he's in the great outdoors, Blair said. "I named him after the Rio Grande River because he likes water."
Rio represents an experiment for UAS. "They have never allowed an animal in student housing before, but students can sign him out to take him for a walk or a hike," Blair said. He is also looking for volunteers who want to groom Rio, feed him and clean up after him.
If it sounds just like home, that's the idea, said Tish Griffin, director of student activities and housing. Communing with pets is known to lower stress, which is often prevalent among students who are away from home for the first time and struggling with challenging courses.
"There are lots of studies that say pets lower blood pressure," Griffin said. "And it's really fun to try something cutting-edge on the UAS campus. I talked to a lot of my colleagues at other universities and they rolled their eyes and said 'We would never go there.' But I saw what the Pioneers Home was doing with pets, and wanted to try. For me it's a baby step because I get lots of requests from our 20 units of family housing about pets."
Over the years, Griffin has experienced numerous challenges to UAS pet policies. "I have had everything from ferrets to snakes to dogs and cats show up. But we are firm in our policies," she said. UAS does allow fish, and the lodge has a 50-gallon tank of its own.
Blair's laid-back Lab has "the perfect disposition" to be UAS's "community pet," Griffin said. "I have never heard him bark. He is easy-going and friendly. He even came to the orientation dinner Wednesday night looking for hand-outs, so he's already part of the community."
The pet pilot program starring Rio will run for six months. Then a decision will be made whether to allow the Lab to take up permanent residence in the Housing Lodge.
Meanwhile, a checkout list and leash are available outside Blair's office. He hopes students won't feed Rio junk food or corn chips or entice him to drink beer. "If we survive the hectic next few weeks, everything should be calm," he said.
"Many people light up around animals, and there is enough space in that 9,000-square foot lodge that if you aren't an animal person, you don't have to be near him. For those who are, they are just enchanted," Griffin added.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org