For two hours last Tuesday, during what is also National Pet Month, students had a chance to “Take a Paws” and connect with therapy dogs brought to campus by employees of Purina working in partnership with UMSL’s Office of Student Involvement. Each of the dogs had been trained by Duo Dogs, a national nonprofit that trains and connects dogs with people to cultivate positive change in individuals, families and communities, and they gathered on the lawn outside the Recreation and Wellness Center.
Participating UMSL students were able to feel the immediate benefits of interacting with therapy dogs. Brittany Fearnley, a sophomore majoring in marketing who has had dogs all of her life, attended the event in the attempt soothe her mental health, particularly while preparing for final exams.
“It’s definitely a lot of joy – definitely brings your day a little bit of light when you’re trying to study and gives you a little bit of a break for sure,” she said, describing how it felt to engage with the touch therapy dogs.
Sophomore Sara Perez, who’s also a lifelong dog owner, was attracted to the event because she missed her dog at home and wanted some play time with the pooches to lift her spirits.
“I just really liked doggies,” the biochemistry and biotechnology major said. “I’m away from my dog right now being here, so I just wanted to come pet some while I could.”
Julie Spears, senior manager of clinical trials for research and development at Nestle Purina North America, is part of the team that conceived of the event.
“I’ve talked to quite a few of our behavior scientists who’ve looked into this program and the benefit that pets can have on our overall health and welfare,” she said. “We’ve done quite a bit of work with other universities like the University of Missouri, where they’ve looked at the effect that service dogs or therapy dogs can have on people that are going through a stressful time or having mental health struggles. We were able to see a reduction in blood pressure or reduction in some of the stress hormones, like cortisol, and just an increase in overall mood.”
Taking a break from studying, the interaction with a small dog, Bambi, gave Perez a moment of fun.
“She was really soft and warm,” she said. “I felt happy.”
Nyeal Biedenstein, a first-year student majoring in accounting, is a big proponent of dog therapy. He has two German Shepherds at home who help keep his spirits up. He saw the event on his way to class and wanted to join in.
They’ve really just boosted my morale,” he said. “I came to school, and I was like, ‘another day’,” he said rolling his eyes to convey despair. “And then I saw all these dogs.”
May has been observed in the United States as Mental Health Awareness Month since 1949 to raise awareness about mental and behavioral health issues and decrease the surrounding stigma.
According to the National Institutes of Health, touch therapy has been proven to decrease levels of stress. Additionally, it’s known to reduce loneliness and increase feelings of social support and boost mood. The goal of the touch therapy teams was to complete about 1,800 interactions this week with students at UMSL and four other participating universities across the St. Louis region.