UMN therapy animals help calm stressed students

By Richard Chin. Paul Pioneer Press, Associated Press | Posted - Sep. 26, 2014 at 1:31 p.m.


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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Midnight the dog, Molly May the cat, Honey the bunny and Woodstock the chicken will now be making regular appearances at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus.

Dogs, cats, rabbits, miniature horses and a chicken are college-bound this fall with the mission of making life a little easier on campus for stressed-out students.

Called PAWS -- Pet Away Worry & Stress -- it's a program that started last year at the university's Minneapolis campus in which teams of registered therapy animals and their volunteer handlers were available a couple of hours a week for free furry, purry encounters with students, staff and others in the university community.

The program, a collaboration between the university's Boynton Health Service and the school's Animal-Assisted Interactions program, proved pretty popular from the start.

During the first session last fall, more than 400 people showed up for the chance to hug a dog or pet a chicken.

This year, the program is expanding with regular sessions on the St. Paul campus, which only makes sense because that's where a lot of animal-loving agriculture, animal science and pre-veterinary medicine students take classes.

The program also will begin making available university horses kept at a school barn on the St. Paul campus to offer students and others soothing equine encounters, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/1u1P3xy ) reported.

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The headliner of the program is probably Woodstock, a fluffy, friendly Silkie-breed chicken from St. Paul, who is the therapy animal teammate of Tanya Bailey. Bailey is an animal-assisted interaction program specialist at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and the coordinator of the PAWS program.

Bailey has had Woodstock since she hatched eight years ago. She was attentive to humans and liked to be picked up, which made her a good candidate for training to be a therapy animal.

"Not every animal wants to do this work," Bailey said.

"It's softer than I expected. It's kind of calming," said Lauren Schultz, an 18-year-old freshman from Buffalo, who stroked Woodstock as the chicken sat calmly in her basket at this year's first PAWS session in St. Paul in mid-September.

"That's going off the bucket list right there. Pet a chicken," said Kayla Wirkus, 21, of Inver Grove Heights.

"I've had some bad experiences with chickens, but this one is nice," said Allison Long, 18, of Medina.

Bailey said people who encounter Woodstock "tend to get really quiet." They sometimes hold her basket and rock back and forth as if she were a baby.

"I think they are finding a place of peace and serenity and presence," Bailey said.

"A lot of people will say, 'I can't believe I'm holding a chicken.'"

The bird tweets, of course.

"I follow her on Twitter," said student Cynthia Johnson, 18, from Edina. You can, too, at @TherapyChicken.

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Bailey said part of the aim of the program is to get homesick or exam-stressed students in the door at Boynton Health Service to make them aware of the availability of mental health services and health services in general at the university.

But spending some time rubbing the belly of a dog or scratching the ears of cat may also "positively affect blood pressure, heart rate and stress-hormone levels in humans," according to the program.

Ann Goplen, a veterinarian and assistant professor at the university, said last year a dispirited student spent 20 minutes at a PAWS session hugging her therapy dog, Midnight.

"I just bombed a test," the student confessed to Goplen. "It calmed her to interact with a dog," Goplen said.

Ann Kelly-Regan, who volunteers at PAWS with her therapy dog, Lupe, said students "always talk about their own dog and how much they miss their dog at home."

"I probably miss my dog more than my family," said Long, a freshman. "I FaceTime my dog."

"You definitely have students who have a lot of animal connections in their life," Goplen said. The program also attracts a lot of international students, she said.

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More than 60 animal-human volunteer teams are part of the program. Many of them also volunteer with other programs ranging from interaction with Alzheimer's disease patients to youth reading programs.

The animals "have to have a love of people," said Carol Pawlicki, who volunteers with her therapy rabbit, Honey. "She's a very social girl. She's a very people-oriented rabbit."

"She will choose people over everything," said Kelly-Regan of Lupe, a mini Labradoodle who has had a year of obedience training, canine good citizenship training and therapy training before becoming part of a registered pet team.

And in a setting like PAWS, where dogs, cats, rabbits and a chicken are all in the same room, "they have to be able to get along with other animals," Goplen said.

Three university horses -- a thoroughbred retired from racing and police work, a horse bred for a university research project and a horse rescued in a neglect case -- were also available for some student petting at a PAWS session last week at an animal pavilion on the St. Paul campus.

Brittany Lowery, a 19-year-old sophomore from Eau Claire, Wis., came to that session as well as another one last week. She said her interest is both academic and personal. She's an animal science major studying animal behavior.

But getting close to the animals, she said, is "a really good stress reliever. Oh, my goodness. It's awesome. It just really puts a smile on your face."

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the St. Paul Pioneer Press

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Richard Chin. Paul Pioneer Press

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