Earlier this week, I found myself on the grounds of the Macalester College campus, holding the leash to my dad’s dopey dog, a shelter mystery-mutt named Berly.
We were waiting for my sister, so we wandered around for a little while then sat down on a bench just outside one of the buildings. We had been sitting there less than a minute when the first student approached us, asking “Can I pet your dog?” I said yes, of course, as Berly flung himself to the end of his leash, climbing into the girl’s arms.
Other students saw that she had been allowed to pet him, and rushed to join. Groups of three or four would approach, ask me his name, and pet him for a few second before rushing on to their next class. In the five minutes that it took for my sister to find us, Berly had been pet by more than fifteen people, after which I stopped counting. The students all walked away looking a little more relaxed, a bit less frantic, and Berly almost refused to leave his spot in the grass, where he was waiting for his next belly rub.
This experience reminded me of the therapy dog sessions that are hosted in the library around finals. Could something as simple as petting a dog really help with stress? According to PAWS (Pet-Assisted Visitation Volunteer Services) for People, a non-profit pet therapy organization, the answer is yes. The PAWS for People website says that interaction with dogs decreases stress and boredom while encouraging socialization and communication. There are also physical benefits, the most prominent for college students being lower blood pressure after animal interaction. When people have high levels of stress, such as the stress from studying for finals, or writing a paper at the eleventh hour. These blood pressure spikes put strain on a person’s heart and can do lasting damage, regardless of the person’s age.
In order to maximize on the health benefits for St. Kate’s students, Amy Mars, who works as a librarian in the St. Kate’s St. Paul campus library, started arranging visits from therapy dogs several years ago.
Mars says, “When I became a librarian at St. Kate’s I saw how stressed how students would get in the weeks leading up to finals. Being the animal-lover that I am, I decided we needed to bring therapy dogs to St. Kate’s. There is a lot of research that shows the health benefits of companion & therapy animals. Studies have shown that petting dogs lowers blood pressure, reduces the stress hormone cortisol and triggers the release of oxytocin and other endorphins that have a calming effect.”
The dogs come to the library a few days before finals for the “De-Stress Fest”, and simply lounge around on the floor while dozens of students crowd to pet them. The presence of the dogs transforms the library from a calm, quiet place, to a place with a new buzz of energy provided by the pups that sprawl out on the floor. The event is sometimes paired with snacks, reminding stressed out students to eat, something that is sometimes forgotten during intense study sessions.
“The therapy dogs are always the star attraction…Many students miss their own pets after moving out of their parents house and relish in the opportunity to interact with a furry friend. Dogs are also the perfect ice breaker. Students who have anxiety about meeting new people (something I also can relate to) feel more comfortable socializing and sharing in the presence of a dog or cat,” said Mars.
As someone who recently adopted a dog, I can confidently say that I think that the health benefits are definitely real. My dog is a 12-year-old Dalmatian mix who doesn’t move very much, but whenever she sees me starting to get stressed, she will curl up close to me and rest her chin on my arm. She also reminds me to eat dinner at a consistent time by demanding her own food around 6:00 every night.
As someone who is not super health-conscious, there are not many things that I will go out of my way to do, but if playing with dogs is going to help me be healthier, I am all about it. The next De-Stress Fest is coming up quickly, set for Tuesday, May 10 from 11:30am-1:30pm. I’ve already put it into my planner. I mean, there will be dogs and free food, what could be better than that?