Therapy dogs help students relax and relieve stress

A partnership between the Wharton School Undergraduate Division and the Alliance of Therapy Dogs brought therapy canines to campus as a way to relieve stress during exam times.

Penn students petting a dog outside
Beau the English Labrador plays with students as they take a break from studying and enjoy therapy dogs on campus during the event, “Pawsitive Study Break” sponsored by Wharton Undergraduate Division at Tannenbaum Quad. (Image: Sara Hoover, Wharton Undergraduate Division)

At Tannenbaum Quad, Esha Pathi, a first-year student at the Wharton School, said spending even a little time with a therapy dog helps relieve stress. 

“The last few weeks have been very stressful with a lot of assignments, and the weather is perfect today,” she said. “The opportunity to pet dogs is a big stress reliever. Just seeing a lot of people out here happy and not worrying about their obligations for a while is nice to see.”

The Wharton Undergraduate Division, in partnership with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, provided the canines in November for a “Pawsitive Study Break,” part of the Division’s overall initiative to provide study breaks for students and give them a way to relieve stress during exam times.

Students participating in the program approached the dogs one-on-one or in small groups. The time students spent with a therapy dog varied from a few minutes to an hour. 

“What I liked about this program is how it reminded me of the feeling I had at home with my own dog, and especially felt comforting when I started to miss my family and my own pet,” said Jeremy Calcarian, a first-year Wharton student in a demanding economics program. “It is a good stress reliever and good vibes. It’s calming and destresses you when you come out here with friends.”

Penn students petting a dog outside
Roxie is a retired racing greyhound, now a therapy dog with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, an international registry of certified therapy dog teams. ATD provide testing, certification, registration, support, and insurance for members who volunteer with their dogs in animal-assisted activities. (Image: Sara Hoover, Wharton Undergraduate Division)

Lee Kramer, director of student life at the Wharton Undergraduate Division, says the Division is focusing attention and programming on student wellness. 

“Student well-being is vital and we want to make sure that we provide our students with wellness resources, programming, and initiatives throughout the year in order for them to flourish and thrive at Wharton and Penn,” he says. “The therapy dog event was a great opportunity for our students to unwind during a busy time of year and to connect with their peers, as well as with these amazing dogs.”

Such programs are becoming more common at universities as students cope with the challenges of student life and increasing workloads.

“Dogs offer a unique type of social support, as they can provide unconditional affection in a way that humans sometimes cannot,” says Lauren Powell, a postdoc at the School of Veterinary Medicine. “Studies show students generally feel less stressed after interacting with a therapy dog.” 

Therapy dogs can also help students achieve a stronger sense of belonging and better deal with being homesick while lessening their anxiety. According to Powell, some of this can be explained by how human bodies respond to pleasant interactions with therapy animals. 

Penn students petting a dog outside
10-year old, Luna the Papillon being petted by Penn students during Wharton Undergraduate Divison’s “Pawsitive Study Break.” (Image: Sara Hoover, Wharton Undergraduate Division)

“When we interact with dogs, we typically find our heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels decrease, and our oxytocin levels often increase,” she says. 

Lisa Podolsky, associate director of student life at Wharton and organizer of the event, says she was thrilled to be able to provide the therapy dogs to students. 

“College can be a stressful time, and it’s hard to take a moment to breathe and relax

when there is always something that needs to get done,” she says. “The therapy dogs were intended to help students find balance and prioritize their wellness. This event gave students the chance to let go of their stress for a moment and experience joy.”

Not only did students revel in their time with the therapy dogs, but the dogs also seemed to enjoy spending time with the students. One of the handlers, Susan Kupper-Smith, who had her 10-year-old canine trained as a therapy dog, said participating in Penn’s study breaks also provides a great opportunity for her dog to gain experiences.

“It’s a nice event to share her love and therapy skills to help distract the students from the stress of work and school,” she said. “It’s also a learning opportunity, along with a chance for us to give back to the community.”