Whole Health Focus: A PAWSitive impact on your mental health

Dr. Claire Peel Animal Assisted Dog Therapy Training.It’s the middle of finals week, you have three exams in the next two days and you’ve spent more time in the library with your textbooks than you have at home. The stress is making it hard to focus and you’d love to take a walk to clear your mind, but you don’t have enough time before your first exam.

Many of us know this scenario all too well: the feeling of needing a break to destress but being too stressed to take the break. For years, therapy dogs have been weaving moments of joy and comfort into situations like this.

It’s no secret that these four-legged companions provide numerous benefits – these benefits are exactly why you might walk onto The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth campus one day and see several therapy dogs.

A four PAWS approach to Whole Health

PAWS, HSC’s therapy dog program, was established in 2013 as a way to provide much-needed stress relief to students, faculty and staff at the Health Science Center.

PAWS partners with external agencies to bring certified therapy dogs and handlers to campus roughly four times per year. This practice has seamlessly fit into the Whole Health initiative HSC launched in 2022. Whether it’s improving mental health, encouraging students to be active and take charge of their physical health, or empowering them to identify their own self-care needs, these dogs have continued to prove their impact on health.

“These therapy dogs have such an impact on our students’ whole health,” said Dr. Brittany Torres, associate professor of pharmacotherapy at HSC’s College of Pharmacy. “Not only do they provide the stress relief our students need, but they also provide a way for our students to develop a community with other students they might not have crossed paths with otherwise.”

For Lauren Magalhaes, a first-semester Physician Assistant Studies student in the School of Health Professions, these therapy dogs provide a great way for her to break up her jam-packed class schedule.

“My classmates and I have loved having the PAWS therapy dogs on campus,” she said. “I know I personally love to go see furry friends at the local SPCA, but that can be very time consuming. Being able to bond with PAWS dogs on campus is a convenient way to get the stress relief we all need.”

Other students see the dogs on campus as a way for them to gain experience with therapy dogs before they enter the clinical setting, such as first-year Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine student and Cook Children’s Medical Center volunteer, Kathryn Adkins.

“The PAWS dogs remind me of the ones I see when I volunteer at the hospital,” Adkins said. “They remind me that the stress is worth it because one day, I will be able to help patients like those at Cook Children’s.”

The science behind the wagging tail

Torres also shares that there is more to what these dogs do for people than simply helping them feel better. Studies show that petting a dog reduces the cortisol levels that cause stress and increases oxytocin levels that help with relaxation. The benefits are seen by just petting the dogs.

“It’s a proven fact that dogs make us feel better, but many don’t know that it’s not simply because we love dogs,” said Torres. “Yes, they are making us happy and distracting us from our stress, but there is science to prove they actually do have the ability to reduce stress – and reduce it almost immediately.”

For updates on when the PAWS team will be on campus, visit: library.unthsc.edu/about/events/

To learn more about our Whole Health Initiative visit: unthsc.edu/whole-health

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