College Kids Are Going to the Dogs

Jul 27, 2016 by

‘Therapy 101’ is practically a requirement for stressed-out students

by Morgan Halvorsen

Most college students may be off for the summer, but before long they’ll be hitting the books once again. Yet they won’t be alone and without adequate help during exam time, thanks to some “therapy” that is increasingly becoming available to our stressed-out young people — who are balancing studying, social life, and so much more during their time on campus.

Or, to put it another way — our kids are going to the dogs.

“The dogs just lie there and let you pet them,” said one student.

While virtually all colleges and universities today offer mental health resources on campus such as counseling and therapy, a number of them also roll out the four-legged help during exam time — aka therapy dogs.

An East Coast mother of two recently took her son to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he’ll begin studying in the fall — and was fascinated to learn that during exams, students have access to therapy dogs for stress relief and reassurance. The dogs are brought into the library, the dorms, the student center and other places on campus at designated times — so that kids can pet the dogs to their troubled hearts’ content.

“It really works,” one upperclassman told the mom. “It’s such a relief and just so nice to be able to pet the dogs. All they want is just to love you and be with you. They just lie there and let you pet them.”

A March 2016 study from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, found that visits with therapy dogs during exam week greatly reduced college students’ perceived stress.

Related: Our Fragile, Forlorn College Kids

“[The] study should serve as encouragement for other universities to consider activities with therapy dogs as a way to help address stress before final exams,” Sandra Barker, Ph.D., a professor at the VCU School of Medicine and the director of the VCU Center for Human-Animal Interaction, said in a release. “Stress is a major problem for college students and exams are considered one of the major stressors,” Barker added.

While certain biomarkers of stress did not change for the students, the study found a significant decrease in perceived stress — which can be just as important. Some 80 percent of college students reported frequent or occasional daily stress, according to a survey by The Associated Press and mtvU in 2008. Elevated stress levels can lead to headaches, memory impairment, sleep problems, anxiety, depression, and even heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

None of these are particularly good for students trying to retain and reflect a whole semester’s worth of information.

“Before each visit, we have a protocol to ensure health and safety, such as grooming each pet within 24 hours [and] always having the animal on a leash,” said a faculty adviser.

Deborah Linder, faculty adviser for the Paws for People program at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, emphasizes the benefits of therapy dogs. “There have been many studies showing physical and mental health benefits of human-animal interaction,” she told LifeZette. “This includes decreased heart rate, decreased cortisol (stress hormone), and lowered blood pressure in stress relief programs.”

What about those universities concerned about the costs of instituting pet therapy programs?

Most pet therapy programs are basically free, according to a 2015 Forbes article on the topic. “The dog handlers are most often volunteers who bring their own pet-therapy certified dogs to campus for special events and receive no pay,” the article noted. “Costs for the handlers themselves only amount to parking fees and registration fees for training their dogs.”

Universities looking to start a pet therapy program have a variety of resources at their disposal. While therapy dogs are not considered service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a number of organizations train and certify dogs to participate in animal-assisted therapy.

Tufts University’s Paws for People, for example, works with Pet Partners, a nonprofit that establishes and enforces strict standards in training and evaluating therapy animals.

“We follow all their [Pet Partners’] policies, such as health and behavioral requirements of animals, training of handlers to watch for stress signals, and evaluations to ensure visitation is safe for both animals and people,” said faculty adviser Linder. “Before each visit, we have a protocol to ensure health and safety, such as grooming each pet within 24 hours, always having the animal on a leash, and monitoring for any signs of stress in animals.”

If the therapy dogs aren’t enough, well, some universities are going above and beyond that.

Therapy dogs don’t just help college kids, of course. Programs using such animals are also available at community libraries and elementary schools in an effort to improve literacy for struggling children.

“Students’ blood pressure was lower when reading out loud in the presence of a dog than when reading out loud to a friend or an adult,” according to a 2014 study done by a group of psychology professors in South Africa. “The unconditional acceptance of the therapy dogs in our study made it possible for the students to read out loud. It allowed them to make mistakes without the threat of being punished or ridiculed.”

College students benefit from interacting with therapy animals — who have expectation of success or any capacity to criticize them. And if the therapy dogs aren’t enough, well, some universities are going above and beyond even that.

“We recently toured the University of New Hampshire, and our tour guide told us that during finals, the students have access to therapy dogs — as well as 15-minute massages by professional masseurs they bring to campus,” one Boston-area mother marveled.

But that’s not all: “UNH even offers ‘primal scream’ sessions during finals, where the students stand in the foyer and scream at the top of their lungs!”

Maybe it’s the parents who should be screaming once they see the bill for all of these unbelievable services.

Source: College Kids Are Going to the Dogs | LifeZette

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