License to relax

These trained animal-human teams offer students breaks from stress

By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Photos by Karen Carmody-McIntosh

A student spots a dog in Wilson Library and puts aside her backpack for a moment; she sinks to the floor and starts petting the dog. She and the dog go nose to nose. Soon the dog has attracted a couple more students reaching out to relax for a few minutes.

No questions — that’s one attraction of Boynton Health’s Pet Away Worry and Stress program. The dogs, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, and cats may be able to communicate at some level with the students who visit them but they cannot talk. Students find them welcome companions, along with their humans who ask if they want to pet their animals, when they encounter them Mondays through Thursdays at various places on campus, including Wilson Library.

“We are very much a part of a mindful, planned approach to helping students manage their mental health, which stress is a huge component of,” says Tanya Bailey, the Animal-Assisted Interactions Coordinator leading the Boynton program. It’s among several student health-promotion programs, such as offering safer-sex supplies, supporting sobriety, and training peer mentors in de-stressing strategies.

Animal magnetism

“Their role when they come here is to be a student. That’s their job. Our job, as an institution that is helping them get that degree, is to support that experience.”

—Tanya Bailey, Boynton Health

How do animals help decrease stress? Study after study, says Bailey, “shows that for students, oftentimes leaving home and leaving their pet behind is more difficult than saying goodbye to their parents, their best friends, and their hometown.” The animal-human bond can be very strong; with his biophilia hypothesis, entomologist E. O. Wilson suggests that humans becoming disconnected from nature and animals “has invited disease into our lives,” Bailey says.

Bailey’s own research, conducted as part of her Ph.D. program in the School of Social Work, found the program to be helpful. She asked about how often students came to a Boynton Health PAWS program and how long they stayed; the greater the number of times and the length of time both helped students manage their stress.

Students bringing their own animals to campus, however, would be chaotic.

“Their role when they come here is to be a student. That’s their job,” she says. “Our job, as an institution that is helping them get that degree, is to support that experience.”

Trained teams

Boynton Health’s PAWS has about 100 animal-human teams, recruited through word of mouth. Bailey has never had to market for them, she says, given the tight network of people who work with animals for human health in the Twin Cities.

Many of them are U alumni, former faculty or staff, or students enrolled in other colleges around the country.

“They really get what it means to be in college, to be at the University of Minnesota. That’s another gem of this program,” Bailey says. “We have people who are part of this who can speak to the experience of being at the University.”

They and their animals undergo an immense amount of training to become therapy teams — the humans actively engage with the students and talk about their animals — and every two years both members of the team have to pass an exam.

“Sometimes animals don’t pass,” she says. “Sometimes humans don’t pass.”

Bailey always is looking for new teams, because there’s no shortage of need. She also would particularly like to attract cats — the number one request from students — and their humans. It is difficult, she notes, to find cats who can tolerate a car ride and enjoy being around dogs. (Anyone interested can contact Bailey at tanya@umn.edu.)

Libraries are safe spaces

A few years after the program started in 2013, Bailey was pleased to add Wilson Library to the rotation. “Libraries really are a safe space,” she says. “They accept you for whoever you are when you come in the door; that’s understood.”

By consistently appearing on the same day in the same area, Boynton Health’s PAWS can help students recognize interactions with animals as a tool in their stress-reduction toolbox. Says Bailey: “We want students to develop habits for stress management that are on the good side of things versus the bad side of things.”

The consequences can be substantial. Bailey points out that mental health is a top public health concern on university and college campuses — not just at the University of Minnesota. Accidents are the number one cause of death among college students; the second is suicide.

“Students cannot stuff their stress,” Bailey says. “They have to explore it and talk about it and get it out. If they don’t, it will squeak out sideways in a dysfunctional way.”

With the animal-human teams of Boynton Health’s PAWS, students can communicate about their stress, even without words.

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