Animal-assisted therapy — in other words, sessions with dogs — is what the University of North Texas (UNT) is now offering its student body.
Dog-facilitated workshops started in the spring of 2017 and are now part of the campus culture. Sponsored by UNT’s Counseling and Testing Services team, these sessions are designed to help students enhance their mood and mitigate anxiety while petting therapy dogs.
Students can choose from among three canine workshops. The first session is called “Healing Arts with Rockstar the Dog,” in which students pet Rockstar while completing an art project designed to increase self-awareness, compassion, and gratitude. The second session is titled “Dog Breath” and allows students to hug Buddy while learning skills to relieve stress and manage anxiety. A third session will begin next month — it will show clips of the television show “The Office” and provide students with the opportunity to cuddle therapy dogs as they “learn to form healthy relationships and increase coping skills,” according to a UNT advertisement.
Buddy (a poodle), Rockstar (a terrier mix), Dakota (a yellow Labrador retriever), and Willow (a chocolate Labrador retriever) make up the roster.
The overall goal is for students to “learn skills that can be used to relieve stress and manage anxiety while spending time with a loveable pet,” according to a campus flyer.
Buddy the Therapy Poodle even has his own Facebook page — in which “he” asks people to join him at his Tuesday afternoon therapy session. Nearly 400 people follow Buddy, and that number just keeps climbing.
“Research has shown that within five minutes of petting a therapy dog, hormones associated with stress and anxiety go down in the person petting the dog, and hormones associated with wellness and healing go up,” noted Dr. Cynthia Chandler, brainchild of the UNT program and professor of counseling, according to a statement.
In spite of many supporters — such animal therapy may be a sham. The Journal of Applied Developmental Science recently reported that animal-assisted intervention “remains in its infancy.”
“It’s a field that has been sort of carried forward by the convictions of practitioners … and the research is playing catch-up,” said James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
Located in Denton, Texas — just 40 miles northwest of Dallas — UNT was spared from the ravages of Hurricane Harvey.
While the administration quickly enrolled students from other colleges who were impacted by Harvey into UNT, these animal-assisted sessions continue. Rather than directing the student body to charitable work to help those who were most affected by the hurricane, students continue to receive canine therapy.
These young adults are trying to manage their stress — while millions of Texans and now Floridians and others in the Southeast are trying to restart their lives.
Daniel Riseman, founder of Riseman Educational Consulting in Irvington, New York, has been counseling students and working with families for more than 17 years.