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Campus Canines Alleviate Stressed Out Students

KUNR is exploring mental health issues among young people in our community, and we start at college, where many counselors are seeing a rise self-reported anxiety and depression among students. As Reno Public Radio’s Julia Ritchey reports, some campuses, like the University of Nevada, Reno, are now turning to pet therapy as a way to help students cope with the emotional highs and lows of academic life.

The University of Nevada, Reno's library is usually a quiet sanctuary for students cramming for mid-terms, but not right now ... because right now, there are cute dogs everywhere.

One volunteer with local pet therapy organization Paws 4 Love introduces her poodle to a crowd of fawning students, like junior Lauren Bilby, who take turns stroking her soft, curly fur.

"So I decided to stop by because I had a big exam this morning, too, and I was just dead tired, and then spent about maybe half an hour in here petting the dogs, and now I feel so much better," says Bilby.

Like other students who live on campus, Bilby misses her family pet.

"I have a dog at home, too, so I'm always used to petting him and just giving him love. Since I haven't been home in six-seven weeks; I just went home after six or seven weeks last weekend, and I saw my dog again, so definitely miss that."

These furry breaks are part of a new alternative therapy program launched at the beginning of the semester. Marcia Cooper with UNR's Counseling Services explains.

"What we try to do is bring counseling out of our office to where the students are,” she says.

By far their most popular therapy is the dogs, who visit campus every other Thursday.

"One of the things students requested the most was please have dogs available all the time," says Cooper. "Several universities have done studies on this and they show that it decreases test anxiety, it decreases loneliness [and] it helps improve overall mood."

Leslie Stewart, an assistant professor of counseling at Idaho State University, conducted one of those studies published in the Journal of Creativity of Mental Health last year. Out of 55 students participating in an animal-assisted therapy program, they found a 60 percent decrease in self-reported anxiety and loneliness symptoms.

“The human animal bond has been applied therapeutically for thousands of years," says Stewart. "I think the connection and the positive impact that a positive relationship with an animal can have on both the animal and the human is nothing new, we’re just becoming aware of it.”

She says the increasing popularity of pet therapy is overall a good thing, but….

"I think the flip side of that is that our enthusiasm about animal-assisted therapy may be growing a little bit faster than our knowledge of it. And so I see a lot of folks get really excited about the potential benefits of it, which is wonderful, but not as much attention is being paid to the competency of the provider."

With more animals on campuses, Stewart says, attention should be paid to whether the animal is registered with a certified therapy program to avoid them being mishandled or exploited.

Senior anthropology major Sara Coffey doesn't live on campus anymore so was able to adopt a cat last spring. She still comes by to play with the therapy dogs, though, when they're around.

"This is nice, for sure, but I think it also makes a huge difference if it's your own animal," she says. "Like my cat that I have at home; it's just nice to have something happy to see you when you get back, you know."

For those who can't have an animal, Coffee says, the puppy pile is a pretty good substitute.

Julia Ritchey is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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