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WKU community grieves the loss of Star, Counseling Center’s animal assisted therapy dog

WKU Counseling Center

The Western Kentucky University community is grieving the loss of Star, the Counseling Center’s pet therapy dog. Star crossed the rainbow bridge Friday after a weeklong battle with a rare autoimmune disease.

Star, a poodle/australian shepherd mix, came to WKU in October 2015 after being born six weeks earlier. She was certified to provide animal assisted therapy, where pets assist in therapy appointments and serve as a calming presence for clients and staff alike. Star accomplished both, according to Counseling Center Director Peggy Crowe.

“She was very intuitive,” Crowe said. “I know I’ve witnessed myself over the years if a student came into the lobby and was anxious, upset or crying, and she happened to be out there, she just intuitively knew to go fully approach that student and love on them.”

Animal assisted therapy dogs are proven to reduce anxiety and depression while easing communication by clients in therapy sessions. Star came to WKU from a training facility in Frankfort before undergoing obedience/handling classes in Bowling Green. She was annually reevaluated by Pawsibilities Unleashed.

Star both lived and worked with Counseling Center staff. Her original caretaker was Licensed Psychological Associate Betsy Pierce, who was responsible for bringing the animal assisted therapy program to WKU and obtaining Star. Star lived with Pierce and her family before Pierce’s retirement from the center. Star spent the final two years of her life with Sexual Assault Services Coordinator Elizabeth Madariaga.

“She would interact with you as much as you wanted to be interacted with,” Madariaga said. “I’ve seen her come out of an office and literally put her body between someone’s legs because they were crying.”

Madariaga said Star was kind and loving to everyone, but she did present different sides of her personality to different people. She said, at home, Star was “all dog.” She played with the rest of Madariaga’s pets and enjoyed common pooch activities including running, chewing, and barking. When Star came to work, however, Madariaga said her personality shifted to comforting clients.

“When she had on her vest, she was a work dog. When her feet hit this campus, she knew that she was working. She knew what she was supposed to be doing. And she was, for the most part, a very calm dog,” Madariaga said.

After serving as emotional support for the campus community since shortly after her birth, Star entered a short battle last week with thrombocytopenia, a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the amount of platelets circulating in the blood. Madariaga said Star’s symptoms began during a visit with her former full-time caretaker, Betsy Pierce.

“She didn’t eat anything or drink anything on Sunday. Betsy [Pierce] took her to the vet, and the vet said she had an ‘autoimmune crisis.’ That meant that her platelets weren’t clotting like they should, and that there’s not necessarily anything that could’ve caused this, that it’s often genetic,” Madariaga explained.

Star’s vet initially tried medication to treat the condition, but her body showed no improvement. Her caretakers and Counseling Center staff eventually made the decision to put Star down Friday after spending time with her loved ones.

Crowe and Madariaga said Star had an outsized impact on all who knew her. Social media tributes poured in for Star over the weekend. Facebook commenters noted that Star “brought happiness wherever she went” and was “such a sweet girl.”

Star’s colleague, WKU Military Support Services therapy dog CanDoo, posted a Valentine’s Day message in honor of Star.

Star’s remains were cremated. The Counseling Center plans to hold a memorial service in the coming weeks and display a small commemorative plaque for Star in their office.