If there’s one thing students miss when they go off to college, it’s … their pets.
That’s the theory behind a new program for stressed-out students at the University of Minnesota. It’s designed to give them a chance to spend some quality time with a few friendly animals once a week.
The program, known as PAWS (“Pet Away Worry and Stress”), debuted Wednesday to a packed house at the U’s Boynton Health Service.
For years, scientists have known that pets can have a calming effect on people, lowering blood pressure and stress hormones. Many colleges already bring “therapy animals” on campus during high-stress times, like finals week.
But the U may be the first to try this on a regular basis, says Tanya Bailey, the program coordinator. “To my knowledge, we’re breaking some really cool ground by doing this.”
Every Wednesday, as part of a pilot program, a group of specially trained dogs, cats or rabbits (and their owners) will hold visiting hours at the clinic from 3 to 5 p.m. The sessions will even feature a trained bird, Woodstock the Therapy Chicken, who’s so popular that she has her own Twitter account (@TherapyChicken).
Anyone can stop by to pet the animals, Bailey said. On the first day, the room was packed within 10 minutes.
“It’s an incredibly important connection,” she says, especially for students who grew up with pets. Some college kids will call home and ask about the family pet before anyone else. “They ask how’s the dog, how’s the cat, can you put them on the phone, can you Skype the cat?” she said.
Not every animal can do the job, Bailey notes. They have to have the right personality — and not freak out at strange noises or crowds.
Woodstock, for example, has been groomed for this role since she hatched seven years ago, says Bailey, who’s also her owner. A Silkie breed with soft fur-like feathers, Woodstock had no trouble drawing a crowd on opening day, alongside a handful of therapy dogs.
Dandy Hou, a 22-year-old transfer student, even posed for pictures with Woodstock. “It makes me happy,” she explained.
Said Bailey: “They really touch people in ways that another human being can’t.”
The therapy animals have been a hit at previous campus events, says Dave Golden, director of public health director at Boynton. So he has high hopes for the weekly clinics. “One of the things we know about students, when they’re more effective at managing their own stress, we know they do better.”