Hugs and Pups: A Feature Story

Senior Journalism Project
Spring 2022
by Alice Hayes

It is 11:30 on a sunny Thursday morning. Kimberly West is wearing bright pink mirrored sunglasses in the parking lot of the Fresh Market in Chapel Hill, NC. She has her 5-year-old English Mastiff, Macie, with her. They are new members of Hugs and Pups Posse Encouraging and Empowering, a non-profit known more succinctly as Hugs and Pups.

Also in the Fresh Market parking lot is Cathy Emrick, the president and a co-founder of Hugs and Pups. She’s wearing a black sweatshirt covered with dog hair and the words “All dogs are therapy dogs. Most are just freelancing.” She’s carrying a binder brimming with handwritten notes and a handmade sign with the Hugs and Pups logo on it.

Since this is the first time West and Macie have gone on a Hugs and Pups “stroll”, Emrick explains rules such as: “Keep your mask on all the time,” or, “Never let go from a hug first.” Then she explains how the stroll works, telling West about the sign: “There’s a pupper and a hugger on every team. The pupper is the dog owner, and the hugger is the one who carries the sign and it has to be visible all the time”. Following that, a warning that Macie will probably be exhausted by the whole thing: “Stay really attuned to the dog. It’s kind of hard to believe until you see it, but the dog’s doing the heavy lifting, you know the dog’s doing the primary emotional support.”

In October of 2021, two students at UNC-Chapel Hill died of suicide. Shortly after, a parent and community rally was held. People brought dogs, food, and hugs for the students who were reeling from the tragedy. Emrick, like many others, had brought her dog. Students adored petting the dogs and it visibly lifted their spirits. The students at the rally were draped in shock and grief, but when they petted the dogs, they felt better for a moment.

At the rally, Emrick met Noel-Beth Sipe. Emrick and Sipe were both members of Free Mom Hugs, and Sipe had found out about the rally from a post Emrick had made on Facebook. After watching students get so much joy out of petting the dogs they decided to bring their dogs onto campus in the future.

They leave Emrick’s car at the Fresh Market and West drives onto campus, where they park at the Rams Head deck. This is the best parking solution Hugs and Pups has come up with even though Emrick’s car risks being towed.

They walk up the stairs from the subterranean parking lot and immediately find people who want to pet the Macie. Macie is a rescue and the tag on her collar says “I’m friendly”, she more than lives up to it. She stands in front of West and lets the first group of students pet her. She’s new to this, and her body language betrays a hint of anxiety. She stands solidly between the students and West, her position telling everyone that if they want to get to West, they will have to go through her. Of course, no one wants to get to West, everyone just wants to pet Macie.

Shortly after deciding to bring their dogs to campus Emrick and Sipe realized that liability could be an issue. What if a dog bit someone? They spoke to lawyers and insurance agents who all agreed, the group could be liable if someone got hurt. They decided to become a nonprofit to shield themselves from personal liability, to only allow one dog in an area at a time, and to ask owners to only sign-up if they were sure their dog is a good fit.

While Hugs and Pups calls it a stroll, West and Macie soon learn that it entails more standing than walking. After the first group of students leaves, they only make it a few yards before they stop for more students to pet Macie. This time, a steady stream of students walk past, see the dog, and stop for pets. Sometimes a student will stare longingly at the dog as they walk. If Emrick sees a student staring she’ll motion them over or ask if they want to pet the dog. Some students can’t stop, they have exams or class, but many stop and rush over to meet Macie.

One of the first things Emrick and Sipe did was start a Facebook group. Much like West and Macie on campus, they were instantly swarmed by excited participants. They had 75 people join the group in the first 48 hours, and it now has over 250 members. The scale of the response surprised them and they quickly realized that this could be a much bigger undertaking then they had originally thought. This concern was heightened after they decided to become a nonprofit, a process that meant raising money, filing paperwork, and having a board of directors. They didn’t care, they wanted to support the students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Macie, West, and Emrick keep walking. A few people pet Macie as they walk. The next place they stop is next to the Bell Tower. . Macie lays down on the sidewalk and several students sit on the ground next to her. She revels in the attention and the students coo over her. Macie drinks some water from a collapsible bowl and then the group keeps walking up towards North campus.

The cost of becoming a nonprofit was another potential problem that Hugs and Pups overcame. The UNC-Chapel Hill law school was willing to help Hugs and Pups for free, but they would still need seven or eight hundred dollars to set up the nonprofit, money the organization didn’t have. After discussing it between themselves, Emrick, Sipe, and the other co-founders floated the idea of yearly dues to pay for becoming a non-profit on the group’s Facebook page. The dues would be ten dollars a year; paid members would be allowed to go on the group’s strolls and would be entered into periodic raffles for bracelets that Sipe makes. The group was unequivocally in support of the idea.

Around 50 people have become fully paid members. Many have even paid extra so that anyone who can’t pay, or isn’t comfortable paying, can still become a member. Ensuring that the dues weren’t a barrier to entry was important to the leadership and the group. One member of the group, Jennifer Manchester, held a fundraiser on her Etsy store and raised several hundred dollars. What had seemed like a difficult problem was quickly handled.

On North campus they cross paths with Sipe and Olga Otter, who has her Great Dane, Blue. Otter is a doctor with the UNC-Chapel Hill emergency room, and is one of the most frequent puppers with Hugs and Pups. Blue is a 4 year old rescue in training as a therapy dog. He is also one of the most well-known members of Hugs and Pups. If a student knows about Hugs and Pups, chances are they know, and love, Blue. A young woman who had just finished petting Macie was told that Blue was just over there and she instantly started sprinting to go see him.

Many of the people in Hugs and Pups went to UNC-Chapel Hill, work there, or have children who attend. West, however, has no connection to the university, other than living nearby. She does have two kids, though: Faith, who is in sixth grade, and Sydney, who has been missing since September, 2020. Her eldest daughter was attending UC Berkeley when the COVID-19 pandemic started. She decided to take time off from school, but stayed in California. The last place she was seen was on the Golden Gate bridge. West and her family still don’t know what happened to her. Participating in Hugs and Pups is part of West dealing with the trauma and grief of her missing daughter.

Macie and company stop across the corner from Blue for a few moments. Blue always sits in the same place in the shade. Macie begins to bark at Blue, so they move further away, ending up under the shade of the Undergraduate library’s covered entrance. Macie, fluffball that she is, appreciates the shade and quickly lays down on the bricks. The humans follow her wisdom and sit down as well.

They stay here for the rest of the “stroll”. People walk by. Emrick tells them they can pet the dog. They come and coo over Macie, who calmly basks in the attention. As they leave Emrick offers a hug or a fist bump. Lots of students are happy to get a hug, and every one that turns down a hug happily recieves a fistbump instead. Several times when Emrick asks a student if they want a hug they reply, “From the dog?”—a somewhat common question on the walks.

Everyone who pets the dogs is very polite. People don’t even approach Macie until they’ve been told they can pet her, or they’ve asked permission. Then many of them stick their hand out patiently for Macie to smell. Next comes a deluge of excited questions, they want to know everything from what type of dog she is to how much she weighs. Students are often very appreciative when they leave. The most common remarks from students are some variation of “Thank you for coming”, “This is so great,” or “I miss my dogs.” Even the ones that don’t say anything walk visibly happier.

Emrick notes one student, a young man, who she recognized from a previous stroll. She’s been worried about him, since he had stayed for a long time and seemed to really need the encouragement. He seemed better today, and she’s glad.

Macie lays in the shade for another hour, peacefully enjoying the pets and attention. Still, it’s clear that she’s getting tired. She curls up and puts her head on her back haunch, positioning herself for a nap. The stroll was supposed to be over at 1, but a few more people pet her before the sign gets set down around 1:15. After Blue and Otter are done, Sipe walks over to talk with West and Emrick.

Otter gave Sipe a bag of stickers and business cards with encouraging slogans on them. Sipe and Emrick look through the bag excitedly. Some of the stickers have religious themes, which concerns them slightly, but they decide that they’ll still give them out to those that want them.

Sipe and Emrick are both committed to making sure that Hugs and Pups is an inclusive and diverse organization. They specifically avoided using gendered language that would exclude people who aren’t moms when talking about parent hugs. They also hope to one day expand the organization and visit historically Black universities since those students face unique challenges and barriers in our society. However, the tinge of white saviorism is a very real concern, and they are keenly aware that their experiences as predominantly older white women are different from the experiences of many of the people around them.

After going through the bags, Emrick, West, and Macie head back to West’s car. They pass a few more students on the way who pet Macie. Macie gets put in the car and they head back to the Fresh Market where West and Emrick part ways.

Later that day, West texts Emrick a picture of an exhausted Macie taking a nap in the yard.

Hugs and Pups officially became a non-profit in April. The leadership, turned board of directors, is excited about what they’ve achieved so far, but they refuse to be distracted from what still needs to be done. Once they have a system figured out at UNC-Chapel Hill, they hope to expand to other universities and states. There’s a lot of work behind them, but there’s even more in front of them. None of what they do is their responsibility, but they still do it gladly.