Angie Lusk on Carnegie Melon’s Paws To Relax

By helloBARK!
Updated on 15 January 2021

Starting university is a big step in your life.

There’s the stress of leaving home for the first time, becoming acclimitaised with new surrounding and making new friends – and that’s before you even think about coursework.

Even if you’re in your second or third year of university life, it can still have it’s challenges, whether it’s an increased study load or the stress of exams looming on the horizon.

Students across the world have faced a fresh challenge in 2020 and 2021 following the coronavirus pandemic that forced a lot of educational institutions to adopt online learning.

Carnegie Melon have been offering a Paws To Relax program for a number of years on campus for students who needed a safe place to talk and switch off from the pressure of university life.

We spoke to Angie Lusk, Program Director of Carnegie Mellon’s Student Affairs Wellness Initiatives, to learn more about their Paws To Relax program.

Students chat and work while cuddling dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Students chat and work while cuddling dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

1) How did the Paws To Relax program first start at Carnegie?

Paws to Relax, like many new initiatives at Carnegie Mellon, was an idea generated by a student leader, Angela Ng (who has since graduated), who received guidance and support from the Division of Student Affairs to bring to fruition. CMU’s mascot is a Scottish Terrier, affectionately known as a Scottie Dog on campus. We have had several Scottish terriers over the years cared for by faculty members at CMU. When Angela would help walk one of the Scottie dogs around campus, she was amazed at how much students would come out of their shell and smile during the interaction.

2) Had you tried other ways of providing students with stress relief before you turned to dogs?

Yes, we have several resources and initiatives on campus to support stress relief, including another student initiative, the Mindfulness Room, a 24/7 space that is owned and managed by students, that supports relaxation and play.

3) What is involved in the average Paws To Relax session at Carnegie?

Carnegie Mellon partners with Animal Friends, a local non-profit animal shelter, that trains animals to become Therapets. Therapets is a volunteer program of both human handlers and their furry friends both certified to visit groups and provide pet therapy. Prior to COVID-19, we hosted a one hour, weekly session with Therapets we name Paws to Relax. We have been hosting Paws to Relax for 5 consecutive years on campus, and have recently moved to a virtual option as a result of COVID-19 to ensure the health and safety of all involved.

4) What are the benefits of the therapy dog programs to students?

Students’ attendance to Paws to Relax is really high, at times up to 150 students over the course of the hour. Students share they can immediately drop into the moment when around a Therapet, and temporarily forget their worries or to-do list. Therapet volunteers, both human and animal, have been incredible at getting students to open up, to share about their day, and to relax. It’s a very well received program on campus, and many of our academic departments add to the slate of offerings for cohort specific groups, particularly around Orientation, mid-term exams, and finals week when we know emotions are high.

5) Have you seen any surprise/unexpected benefits to your therapy dog program?

Given how popular Paws to Relax has become, it has opened additional opportunities to consider creative ways to include animals into our programing and campus initiatives, from goats helping with landscaping to petting zoos to hopefully a therapy animal on staff one day in the future.

6) What did students say about their experiences in the dog therapy sessions?

Therapy dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Therapy dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

There has been overwhelmingly positive feedback, particularly when we have regular volunteers visit over the course of the year. Students come to know certain dogs, and are particularly excited to visit with them each week. We traditionally have dogs each week, but students get very excited when we can add something new, and sometimes we offer Therapet bunny sessions, too. Animals love unconditionally, and I think it’s easy to feel that love in this program. It’s great to see students’ light up when they stop in, whether for five minutes or for the entire time.

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