Dog therapy hours relieve stress

By Josh Qian, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 17, 2012

While many students spend afternoons between classes working through challenging concepts from class with a professor, others visit the office hours of a more unconventional study aid — Dr. Tigger, a certified therapy dog.

Every other Wednesday, the male Shih Tzu therapy dog visits the College of Engineering’s Office of Student Affairs in the basement of the Chrysler Center to greet students in need of a mental rejuvenation. The program is spearheaded by Angela Farrehi, student advocacy manager of the College of Engineering, to help students ease stress and tension.

Farrehi said the College of Engineering has focused on developing innovative programs to create a supportive environment for all students as part of their wellness initiative.

“I work with many students who have gone through very difficult times while at the University.” Farrehi said. “In my work with students, I've heard many of them say how they miss their family dog or how hard it was for them to lose their dogs.”

Farrehi said she rescued Tigger from North Philadelphia a few years ago, and she immediately realized Tigger’s potential to become a therapy dog due to his friendly and calm demeanor.

“The human-animal connection has been studied for some time now,” Farrehi said. “We know pets can help reduce stress, blood pressure and even make us healthier.”

Farrehi added that she started developing the program last year and piloted "therapy dog hours" in partnership with the Counseling and Psychological Services and College of Engineering this academic year. The official office hours program was approved this semester, Farrehi said.

“Students usually come to visit Tigger when they are stressed out and need to relax,” Farrehi said. “The therapy dog is there for students to pet and interact with, and generally help them feel good."

According to Farrehi, the feedback from students has been entirely positive and has garnered enthusiasm around campus from students of all academic disciplines.

“We joke that Tigger's paws never hit the ground while he's on campus because everyone wants to hold him,” Farrehi said. “We've had such a wide range of students, and Tigger is lovingly referred to as ‘Dr. Tiggs’ by many students.”

Laura Blake Jones, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said Tigger provides the College of Engineering with an innovative approach for the COE to reach out to students.

“There is a growing body of research that supports the use of pet therapy in medical settings and schools,” Jones said.

Jones added that pet therapy is an effective way to supplement conventional counseling methods offered on campus.

“All those connections and conduits to help get students to the resources and having a healthy campus community is what we are about doing,” Jones said. “And this is an important part of it.”

Engineering Dean David Munson said he believes many mental problems commonly affecting large communities also impact University students.

"We are not immune. Mental health issues are prevalent and need to be de-stigmatized,” Munson said. “We need to be proactive and care for one another. Fortunately, we have outstanding resources on our campus to assist in this effort."

A March 6 National Public Radio story highlighted many of the physical and psychological therapeutic benefits students can receive through spending time with animals.

Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri’s Sinclair School of Nursing, told NPR that an individual’s level of oxytocin rises after an interaction with animals.

Johnson pointed out that not only does oxytocin induces feelings of joy within humans, it also has profound effects on our brain’s ability to heal and generate new cells.

Engineering senior Luree Brown said her experience with the therapy dog has been very positive.

“You just look into his eyes, and you instantly feel better,” Brown said. “Dogs have an ability to tell your feelings, and he returns the love that you need. Mental healthiness is almost the hardest healthiness to obtain, however, Dr. Tiggs makes it easy.”

Brown added that a therapy dog takes away the anxiety some people have when seeking conventional therapy.

“The therapy dog greets you with excited wags of his tail,” Brown said. “I think that he has become a celebrity on campus now. People from all majors (and) ages are lining up just to have a session.”