Each time the scene is the same. Students flock to the lower level of Boynton Health on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis and encircle therapy dogs lying on blankets for a session of PAWS (Pet Away Worry and Stress). And that’s exactly what they do.
The tail-wagging dogs are in seventh heaven, and the students seem to be on a similar plane of bliss.
“It’s a good distraction,” says Lily Thompson, a first-year student in the College of Biological Sciences. “It’s good for mental health to just, like, chill and let yourself take a break and be with animals.”
That’s exactly the intent of the program coordinated by Tanya Bailey, an animal-assisted interactions specialist. The program has grown by leaps and bunny hops, with some 125 therapy animal-owner teams. There are dogs and bunnies, cats and chickens, guinea pigs and even miniature horses.
PAWS sessions are held Monday through Thursday at RecWell and Boynton on the East Bank, at the St. Paul Student Center, and at varying locations on the West Bank. A quarter of the students and U community members attended at more than one location last year, Bailey says, and 10 percent came 10 or more times.
Merrier with a terrier
As popular as the dogs are at Boynton, they make way for a roomful of bunnies across the hallway each week for “hoppy hour.” On the last Wednesday of October, about three dozen students lay on their stomachs surrounding a bunny playground and offered bites of carrots, lettuce, and craisins to soft and somewhat skittish creatures named Clementine, Dandelion, Tinkerbell, and Gracie Lou.
The bunnies have trading cards, as do the dogs. Crosby, a popular soft-coated Wheaten Terrier, sports a plaid tie on his card, and on the back is a brief bio. He’s “studying psychology and the fundamentals of fun,” it says, and “he wants everyone to know that life is merrier with a terrier.”
Or with any other dog or therapy animal, according to sophomore Caleigh Master. She’s a mechanical engineering student and a PAWS super fan, with a dorm wall full of trading cards. She started going to PAWS weekly last year at the Rec Center.
“It’s a great form of stress relief for me,” Master says. “Being in a dorm, you may not get to see your family all that often, so you don’t get a lot of that affection and support firsthand. But you come here often enough, and there’s the dog that jumps up and is happy to see you. It just brightens my day and makes all that stress melt away.”