At campuses across the country, students deal with the stress of finals in their own unique way. Some take walks when they’re not furiously tearing through their textbooks, rereading passages and taking notes. Others go for the all-nighter and end up falling asleep on their computer keyboards.
Alyssa Santa Cruz, a psychology major at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, prefers a different tack. She turns to a four-legged friend for comfort when the going gets rough. “If I have a large assignment or back-to-back events on top of homework, I will become stressed,” she says. Spending time with a “therapy dog forces me to take a break from all of that and just focus on the dog, because how can you be thinking about homework when a puppy is licking your face?!”
Third-year chemistry major Denlenn Fingerlow gets a big boost from a free, furry form of therapy on her Chatham University campus. “We have to deal with people telling us to redo and recalculate [our work] until we’re not sure what we’re doing. Having something that comes in and loves you and is affectionate toward you and wants to cuddle with you and doesn’t care at all about errors on your last paper is a relief,” Fingerlow says. “It’s nice to see something that is happy and just wants to interact with you in a positive way.”
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Why hugging a furry friend makes us feel good
Fingerlow and Santa Cruz, like thousands of college students, jump at the chance for some canine company on campus because it makes them feel happy and relaxed. A recent study of 246 students at the University of British Columbia scientifically confirms their feel-good response. According to the researchers, there was a notable increase in happiness, a significant reduction in stress, and a surge of energy among most students right after their sessions with the pups.
The results are impressive because the research shows that even a short drop-in session with a friendly pooch lifts your mood, and the effect can last for a few hours — perhaps long enough to get you through a tough final. As the study says, “It may be especially useful for such sessions to take place during stressful periods of the school year, such as exam periods.”
One reason wrapping your arms around a furry friend makes you happy is that it increases your levels of oxytocin, a hormone that enhances relaxation and trust. Just touching or petting an animal also triggers the release of endorphins, which can counteract stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Studies show that petting (or caring for) a dog helps people feel less frightened, increases feelings of security, and shifts their attention away from their anxieties.
The canine cure for homesickness
Test taking is not the only source of stress that therapy dogs relieve. Many students say that getting a chance to play with a friendly animal at school fills the gap in their hearts for their family pet.
“I couldn’t walk across campus without being besieged by students wanting to interact with my dog, Frances,” said Dr. John-Tyler Binfet of the University of British Columbia, who runs the B.A.R.K. therapy program there. (B.A.R.K. stands for Building Academic Retention Through K9s. The program aims to bring together university students and trained therapy dogs and handlers in an effort to reduce stress, combat homesickness, foster interpersonal connections, and promote students’ overall social-emotional well-being.) “These students would tell me about being homesick and missing their pets. This was the genesis of my program.”
Milo Goodman, a senior at Emerson College, attests to the benefits of finding comfort with a four-legged friend. “My 16-year-old cat recently passed away while I was in school,” he says, “and spending time with the dogs helped with my grief as well as my exam-related stress.”
Ashley Walters of Oklahoma State struggled with shyness but found it was easier to engage in the company of Charlie, a shepherd mix from Pete’s Pet Posse. “When you get around the dogs, you get a big old grin on your face, and it just makes everything easier,” Walters told NBC News. “You can just be more open.”
“We’re all adults, but barely,” says Fingerlow. “We miss having someone constantly in our corner. We miss our parents.”
Therapy dogs are catching on at campuses across the country
Colleges and universities are catching on to the benefits of bringing dogs on campus for belly rubs and petting. More than 60% of U.S. universities have animal-assisted stress reduction programs, most involving dogs. Kent State leads the pack, having begun their Dogs on Campus Program more than 14 years ago. Barrett Honors College of Arizona State University, with its Rest and Relax program, offers massages, manicures, and lawn games to unwind, but for Santa Cruz, dogs really make the biggest difference in how she feels. “Some may nap, watch TV, or take a run when they are stressed. I surround myself with dogs!” she says.
“I love the excitement the dogs show. They’re sloppy and big and they lean against you,” says Fingerlow. “It’s just a very affectionate experience.”
With 59% of college students reporting that they feel lonely, 65% feeling sad, and over a third saying that they feel so depressed that it’s hard to function, it’s no wonder that getting cuddly with furry friends is gaining traction. And while you may see handlers and their therapy dogs in dormitories, lounges, and health centers, one of the most popular spots on campus to find these dogs is in the library. Many librarians consider dog therapy to be an integral part of their mission to serve, engage, and support wellness for students. Which makes sense, since excessive stress, which students can experience around finals, impairs memory. Any activity that relieves stress, even for just a few minutes, can help students retain the information they’re trying to learn.
Until his recent retirement, Monty, a certified therapy dog, could be “checked out” of the Yale Law School Library like a book for 30-minute cuddle sessions. At the University of Connecticut you can stop by the library to snuggle with a canine lovebug courtesy of the Paws to Relax program. MIT brings smiles to students during study breaks at the Hayden Library with their Cookies with Canines events around finals. Montana State University’s Paws to De-stress program has seen a 36% jump in attendance at the library event from 2016 to 2017.
“There is no better remedy for anxiety and stress than the friendly face of a therapy dog,” says Pamela Rose, coordinator of library promotion for the University of Buffalo’s Health Science Library. Rose’s program proved to be so popular that universities around the world have reached out to her for guidance. In response, Rose wrote Guide to the Therapy Dog Team Visits at UB.
How to bring therapy dogs to your school
Dozens of nonprofit organizations around the country provide well-behaved, comforting dogs for visits to campuses at no charge. One of the largest organizations, the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, has 17,000 registered dogs available for campus visits in the U.S and Puerto Rico. After contacting the Alliance, student organizations will be matched with a local team of therapy dog handlers who will be happy to visit and brighten your day. Handlers generally need to obtain liability insurance in order to participate on college campuses. Beyond that, it’s a matter of working together to bring some puppy love to stressed-out students.
Getting a therapy dog program into a college depends on “a collaboration among faculty members, college students, support staff, volunteers, and the larger community,” wrote Mary Renck Jalongo in her article “Therapy Dogs in Academic Libraries” (coauthored by Theresa McDevitt). Organizations that offer free therapy dogs ask for a few simple things to get started: a public space that is easily accessible; fresh, clean water; and a welcoming atmosphere.
They also request that the visits be limited to 90 minutes. Otherwise the dogs can become tired, or stressed themselves.
Therapy dogs don’t have specific task training like Service Animals, which are defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act as Emotional Support Animals, and can live in student housing. Instead, therapy pups are vetted for their sweet temperament and ability to relate to people. Members of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs also have “good manners training” (no jumping, licking, or pawing) and many have additional certifications such as the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Good Citizenship designation. Dogs must demonstrate that they are comfortable in crowds and can handle being around crutches and wheelchairs.
Dog handlers get the feel-good benefits, too!
It’s not only students who benefit. The dog handlers enjoy being part of the therapy session as well. “This type of volunteering gives me a sense of purpose unlike anything else. I am sharing an animal that I love with other people, so actually I am sharing love in a very unique way,” says Diane Alexander of Pet Partners of Southern Arizona.
If you’re at a college that offers dog therapy, check with Student Affairs to see when some pups are headed your way, and where to find them. If your college doesn’t yet have a dog program, you might want to initiate one as soon as possible, because demand is through the roof. “What many student groups are learning is we get booked early in the year for de-stressing events, which means we have to turn some of them away because our schedule can’t handle more events,” said Jared Wadley, past president of Therapaws of Michigan.
Once you have access to a dog therapy program, make sure to set aside some time to snuggle. “Having dogs come in feels more like home for most of us,” says Fingerlow. “And we all need a little home sometimes.”