BY ALLYSON MORIN
The stress of college weighs heavily on the mental health of many students. Therapy dogs can provide the answer for stress relief and self-care at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Through the Paws Program, Bright Spot Therapy Dogs, a group that places well-trained therapy dog teams in programs around New England, visits the Student Union Ballroom and W.E.B. Du Bois Library multiple times throughout the semester to relieve stressed students during midterm and final exams.
A Bernese mountain dog named Kaezli flipped onto her back to receive belly rubs from a student attendee during finals week of the fall semester. The 3-year-old therapy dog is one of 27 Bright Spot canine visitors at the Paws Program. (Allyson Morin/Amherst Wire)
“A good therapy dog is happy doing their job,” said Cynthia Hinckley, executive director and founder of Bright Spot Therapy Dogs.
Hinckley founded the program in 2004 and established over 175 facilities throughout New England for canine visits.
“We’re very careful about the dogs we take in," Hinckley said. "They have to have the right temperament. They have to be well-socialized. A dog that’s going to be a good therapy dog has to feel comfortable interacting with people they don’t know and going into places they’ve never been before."
Therapy dogs are different from service dogs in that a therapy dog’s function is to provide love and friendship to a variety of people, while service dogs are specially trained to help their handler with everyday tasks.
Bright Spot founder Cynthia Hinckley at UMass for the Paws Program on Dec. 7, 2016. (Allyson Morin/Amherst Wire)
Many students say the therapy dogs remind them of their furry friends at home, a comforting reminder as they push through exams.
“A lot of people miss their pets at home. These dogs might remind them of their family dogs,” said Josie Pinto, a public health major and peer health educator at the event.
“Dogs are proven to lower stress levels and cheer us up. It feels good,” she said.
Pinto understands how a human-animal bond can relieve stress. Pets can help their humans relieve stress and achieve goals, according to a Scientific American article.
Isabel Feller-Kopman, a UMass student, has a 2-year-old yellow lab at home named Sunshine.
“I love this. It makes me miss my dog,” said Feller-Kopman.
Students like Audrey Herrmann say that it's important to do things to relax in between studying.
“There is so much going on. While it’s important to get good grades and study, you need to take time for yourself as well,” said Herrmann.
Kaci Naughton said that to her, petting pups in the Student Union was the perfect way to wind down, even if just for a little while.
“I’ve never been here before,” said Kaci Naughton, another UMass student. “I personally just changed my major so I’m very stressed. I feel better already being here.”
Therapy dogs and their handlers are trained together to help others through visits to healthcare and educational facilities. A dog’s job is to interact with people — in some cases to provide friendship, and in other cases to provide comfort during troubling times, according to Hinckley.
“When the brain is relaxed, it can focus and concentrate more," said health promotion specialist April McNally with the Center for Health Promotion. "This is good in terms of well-being, mental health and relationships."
Hinckley explained that peer health educators plan these events, and always include at least three health-related resources for stressed students to take advantage of. The Paws Program event also features Active Minds, a group that aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, a body positivity advocate group called Enough and an acupuncture session.
Carly Redmond, a public health major and peer health educator, said self-care is an essential practice to reduce stress during finals season.
“I’m feeling extreme stress,” Redmond said, “People get caught up in it. It’s really important to take time for yourself.”
In addition to organizing several events over the course of the year, Redmond said the peer health educators are “a resource to provide students other resources on campus."
The Paws Program will appear on campus for the last time of the 2016-2017 academic year on April 26.
Some of the Bright Spot dogs also aid younger students to feel comfortable with their learning. Elementary students read stories aloud to the therapy dogs through the Bright Spot reading buddy program. For more information on visits and therapy dog certifications, visit their website.
Email Allyson Morin at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Niromylla.