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Therapy dogs take a bite out of student stress before exams

Erin Devine, PhD, a first-year medical student at Stanford's School of Medicine, was on her way to study for a challenging anatomy final when she was stopped in her tracks by a pack of dogs.

These therapy dogs immediately went to work, dissipating the worries of Devine and other students by offering up free hugs and sloppy wet dog kisses.

“I've always loved playing with dogs. Their affection and kisses are a great way to de-stress and take your mind off studying for a few minutes,” said Devine, as she scratched Crosby’s neck. He licked her face in gratitude.

Beyond the anecdotal reports that say that loving dogs makes people happy, there’s a growing body of evidence that visiting therapy dogs promote emotional and physical health among students. This year a randomized study out of Virginia Commonwealth University suggested that college-aged student felt significantly less stress after interacting with therapy dogs for just 15 minutes. And for many of the students, this experience brings back happy memories of beloved family dogs.

Margaret Govea, director of medical student wellness, is an enthusiastic supporter of Stanford’s therapy dog program, and she works with Martha Kessler, leader of the comfort dog pack, to schedule therapy sessions throughout the year.

therapy-dog-oliver-martha-kessler-560by373According to Kessler, therapy dogs take exams, too. Her six-year-old golden retriever, Oliver, undergoes training and testing throughout the year. So far he has passed tests for canine good citizen advanced, beginning novice, companion dog and therapy dog certifications.

She thinks that the best therapy dogs are born with heightened qualities of empathy and calmness. Oliver, for example, comes from an “Ivy League” line of comfort dogs: His mother provides Wesleyan students with therapy, his sister visits Yale student during exams, and his brother regularly holds sessions at the University of Massachusetts.

After the student therapy session was over, Oliver and Kessler went to the third floor of the Li Ka Shing Center for a short visit with Lloyd Minor, MD, who is a pet parent of two dogs when he's not working as the dean of the School of Medicine.

“Even medical school deans can benefit from comfort dog therapy,” said Kessler.

Previously: Can dogs help diabetic owners monitor glycemic levels?, Psychiatric trained dogs help in the battle of PTSD and Horse therapy could help people cope with early-onset dementia.
Photos by Kris Newby

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