Therapy dogs take a bite out of student stress before exams

A friendly group of dogs visited campus to help relax medical students before exams.

A therapy dog helps first-year medical student Erin Devine de-stress on her way to study for a final.
Kris Newby

Erin Devine, PhD, a first-year medical student at the School of Medicine, was on her way Dec. 6 to study for an anatomy final when she was stopped in her tracks by a pack of dogs.

The animals immediately went to work, dissipating the worries of Devine and other students by making themselves available for hugs and offering up free licks. Therapy dogs, it seems, enjoy their jobs.

“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 one of the dogs’ necks. The dog, Crosby, licked her face in gratitude.

Beyond the anecdotal reports that say loving dogs make 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 students 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.

Training and testing

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 dogs take exams, too, said Kessler, an executive director of finance and administration at the School of Medicine. Her 6-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 obedience, companion dog and therapy dog certifications.

She thinks the best therapy dogs are born with heightened qualities of empathy and calmness. Oliver, for example, is part of an accomplished line of comfort dogs: His mother provides Wesleyan students with therapy, his sister visits Yale students 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 Portuguese water dogs as well as the dean of the School of Medicine.

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

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