Paws for Healing

It’s week nine at UC Irvine. Stressed students trek down Ring Road with notes and textbooks in one hand, a venti coffee in the other. Finals are just around the corner and the pressures are starting to pile up.

Courtesy of Jessica Pratt

Courtesy of Jessica Pratt

As two students make their way to Langson Library to study, a crowd outside the building catches their eyes. Curious as to why there are so many people, they move forward to see several of the benches filled, each with a different person and animal by their side.

A tiny Chihuahua/Corgi mix named Mokie revels in the attention as people crowd around to pet his white and chestnut-colored head. Off to the side, Malcolm, a retired show poodle with light black fur, sits regally as others come over to stroke his braided locks and take pictures.

The students who initially came here to study make time for a quick break. As they visit each of the stations, their furrowed brows and stressed expressions are replaced with ear-to-ear grins. Ten minutes later, they retreat into the library — calm, content, and ready to tackle finals.

Every quarter, Active Minds — a club housed under the Health Education Center that promotes emotional wellness — partners with UCI Libraries and Paws 4 Healing to bring the beloved therapy dogs to campus.

“Paws for Finals” made its quarterly return last Thur., March 6 and was met with many happy responses from UCI students.

“Right before finals week, everybody is really stressed out. There’s been research about therapy dogs, mostly for hospital patients or children with autism, that shows that they relax people, so that’s basically the reason why we bring the dogs on to campus,” Brianna Sturmer, co-president of Active Minds and a third-year cognitive psychology and public health policy double major, said.

As students visit the animals, Active Minds also has a table set up with different resources. People can come by to pick up pamphlets for the UCI Counseling Center, brochures that address mental illnesses and how to get help, and other little treats that promote positivity and emotional well-being.

“We try to raise awareness about mental health and try to change the stigma surrounding mental illnesses,” Sturmer said.

“People don’t really want to talk about [mental illnesses], it’s difficult to talk to others if you’re feeling certain ways. So we try to put on events that get people to maybe think about mental health in a different way.”

Animals have been found to be extremely beneficial to mental well-being, which is why Active Minds partners with the 501(c)(3) non-profit Paws 4 Healing. As an affiliate of the international Pet Partners program and located in Santa Ana, this organization facilitates both Animal-Assisted Activities and Animal-Assisted Therapy. In Animal-Assisted Activities, pets and their handlers visit different settings such as hospitals, schools, nursing homes, etc. and have interactions in a non-structured way. For Animal-Assisted Therapy, more specific goals are created to improve a person’s social, physical or emotional well-being. Regardless of the service, these therapy animals have been shown to help lower blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety, promote socialization and communication, among several other benefits.

The animals and their handlers that participate in Paws 4 Healing do so on a completely voluntary basis. In order to get involved with the organization, the handler must first determine if he or she and their pet have the right kind of temperament for this type of volunteer work. Next, they go through a training course and complete an extensive evaluation process until both of them are ready to have their first visit. Once the pet and their handler have passed the requirements, they are entered into a database and are free to schedule visits at the sites Paws 4 Healing frequents.

Aside from visiting different places such as schools, nursing homes, hospitals, camps or any other place where they are invited, Paws 4 Healing also participates in  R.E.A.D — the Reading Education Assistance Dog program. Founded by Intermountain Therapy Animals, this program allows children struggling with reading to read in front of dogs, because they are non-judgmental and encourage students to overcome a skill that is difficult for them.

Paws 4 Healing President Donna Martin has been involved with animal-assisted therapy and activities since 1999 and could talk for hours about all the benefits she’s seen from human-animal interactions.

“One time we were visiting a home for abused and abandoned little boys, and at the time, one of the teams had a little poodle mix that was burnt on his back from crawling underneath the muffler of a car,” Martin said.

“One of the little boys asked what happened to the dog, and as the owner explained, the boy pulled up his sleeves and showed her scars on his arm. He said, ‘I have burn scars too. My daddy did that with cigarettes.’ So the animals open people up to talk to us.”

Whether they are there to help children cope with traumatic situations, or just to provide some relief for stressed out students, there’s no denying the power of animals and the simple joys that they can bring to people’s lives.

“We help with the human-animal bond,” Martin said. “Animals love people unconditionally — there are no strings attached.”