By Karen Angelo
On a recent Friday afternoon near O’Leary Library, it was like someone had switched on a magnetic field. Students dashed by, caught a glimpse of something and then changed course, ripped out their earbuds and sat on the ground. The attraction? Ben, the university’s new therapy dog.
The 8-year-old English springer spaniel, owned by Public Health Department Chair and Assoc. Prof. Nicole Champagne, soaked up all the love (and selfies) the students could give. Certified as a therapy dog by Dog B.O.N.E.S. in Scituate, Ben visits campus about twice a week.
Besides the many research studies that show that pets and animals lower stress and anxiety, the best part, says Champagne, is that “this encounter with students becomes a way for me to start a conversation with them.”
She asks them how their semester is going and whether they are working through any challenges, and talks with them about campus resources that may be helpful. Most times, though, she answers their questions about the dog that came into her life after her dad passed away. As a public health professional, Champagne grasps the power of pets as a way to provide comfort in any situation.
“Interacting with animals has been shown to reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support and fight off negative feelings,” she says. “Students tell me that when they’re stressed, just seeing a dog makes them happy.”
The Wellness Center hosts many events throughout the year to combat stress. Before final exams in December, students take part in Stress Relief Day, which includes chair massages, arts and crafts, music and visits from therapy dogs – who are, by far, the most popular attraction.
“We know that touching a live animal can lower blood pressure and release positive hormones, so we’ve been trying to get more animals to campus,” says Tracy Moore, director of health education and promotion at The Wellness Center. “The animals are a good conversation starter and a way for students to meet new people.”
In mid-October, nearly 500 students stopped near Fox Hall for the “Pet Your Stress Away” event sponsored by the Wellness Center’s Health Education and Promotion Department. Students interacted with baby bunnies, a piglet, chicks, ducklings, a lamb and goats.
Taylor Koch, a senior public health major, helped coordinate the farm animal event. “The students loved the baby animal petting farm, and so did I,” says Koch, a member of the Healthy HAWKS, a peer health education volunteer group that provides students with health resources. “It was a huge stress relief for me. The baby animals were so cute, and I couldn’t stop smiling. A lot of the students made comments to me on their way out saying how it made their day.”
Nursing student Ashlyn Newell, who also worked at the event, says that once students spotted the animals, they actually ran toward them. “I loved working at this event and seeing the excitement from students,” she says. “I really liked that it seemed like a community of people coming together for a common cause – their love of animals.”