It’s final exam season at colleges across the country which can only mean one thing; your kids are probably stressed out to the max mentally and physically exhausted. Also, it’s highly likely that at this point in the semester a bit of homesickness has finally kicked in (for freshmen especially), and as the year winds down most students are hanging on by a thread.
Of course there are many less than ideal ways for them to kick back and de-stress, but college support staff, including those from campus mental health centers, libraries, and tutoring departments, are finding new and creative ways to provide some stress relief to their student body. And you won’t believe how cute and fuzzy some of these new stress support initiatives are. Literally.
That’s right folks, college is going to the DOGS!
From Oregon to Florida, colleges are taking advantage of the wonderful joy and calming effect dogs can bring into our lives, by having them available to pet and hang around with right on campus during exam week. Some schools call these dog visits catchy things like “Doggie De-Stress,” or “Pause with Some Paws,” and have their college staff members bring in their dogs from home for a day.
But some actually invite genuine therapy dogs in along with their registered handlers, and provide this creative form of canine counseling not only during exam week, but on a regular weekly basis throughout the semester.
Pet Therapy for College Students has Proven Results
Kathi Huenemann is one such registered handler and is part of a group at the University of Minnesota called PAWS, which stands for Pet Away Worry and Stress. They visit the campus not only during exam week, but at least four days per week during the semester, and with dogs they also bring cats, bunnies, rats, guinea pigs, mini horses, llamas, and even a chicken.
Huenemann and her dog Cooper have been volunteering with the program for five years, and will often see the same students each week- as if they have a standing “therapy” appointment with her and Cooper. About the students who come see her, she states,
In visiting the program, each person is looking for something different: some are trying to relieve stress, some are trying to have something positive in their day, some may be looking for the connections made with the handlers (we tend to be the ages of their parents and may occasionally give some motherly advice) and others are looking for physical connection. A freshman new to the campus can’t just walk up to someone and hug them. But she/he can get the physical connection that is craved in a socially acceptable manner by petting or hugging an animal.
Huenemann states that her favorite time to be there with Cooper is during exam week, because that’s when the kids are the most excited to see the animals. She said,
My favorite is when we are in one of the libraries around finals time. 5-7 teams of handers and their animals are at the front entrance. The look of pure joy on the faces of the students when they walk in the door is incredible. They were coming to cram but instead find friendly animals waiting for them. Some find running their hands through fur for 10 minutes is more beneficial than cramming for another 10 minutes. It helps them relax their brains and they say they feel more prepared for the exam as they leave.
In fact, just recently researchers at Washington State University did a study on the effect petting animals would have on the stress hormone levels of its students. It was the first study of its kind that found reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol in students who had spent time with the animals in a real life intervention-such as a finals week interaction and/or therapy session, and not in a laboratory setting.
Patricia Pendry, an associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development involved with the study stated, ”Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone. Just 10 minutes can have a significant impact.”
If your student is an animal lover, misses their pooch at home, and/or is experiencing significant stress because of finals week, have them ask around campus and at the campus mental health center to see if such a pet assistance program exists. And if one doesn’t, perhaps they can get in contact with the local animal shelter or therapy dog non-profit, and see if getting one started is a possibility.
With anxiety, depression, and other mental wellness/illness issues on college campuses growing at alarming rates, programs such as these will inevitably become more welcome, accessible, and likely commonplace, as colleges try to use every resource at their disposal to provide their student body with the tools they need to stay mentally well.
Now if only these pups could help with tutoring organic chemistry after they sit, shake, and roll over for these students, well then we’d have a real “treat” on our hands.
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