Columbia University Medical Center

Pet Therapy Eases Early-Semester Jitters

Ely, a pet therapy dog, gives Marcos Lanio (P&S '18) a wet kiss.

Ely, a pet therapy dog, gives Marcos Lanio (P&S ’18) a wet kiss.

In the midst of P&S students’ whirlwind first few days on campus jam-packed with first meetings, first classes, and first recitation of the Hippocratic Oath, there was one first that few would forget: their first meeting with a 180-pound Irish Wolfhound named Ely, a regular visitor to campus as a trained pet therapy animal.

The 3-year-old dog panted contentedly one afternoon in Bard Hall, as dozens of students walked in, some on the lookout for him, others startled to find a large dog sprawled across the Bard Hall seal as if it were his living room rug. Students approached, many taking seats on the floor, putting their notebooks aside, and stroking his fur.

“Are you waiting?” a young woman asked another before dropping to her knees and taking the dog’s large grey head in her hands. In a brief break before her first anatomy class, she stroked his face affectionately, joining a circle of students hovering over the dog, their anxious jitters evaporating into relaxed smiles and chatter. Some scratched the dog’s belly, played with his large paws (which appeared to be slightly smaller than a woman’s size-seven foot), or stood back and talked to Ely’s owners. Standing in the corner watching and smiling were Justin Laird, PhD, the assistant director for health promotion, and Jane Bogart, the director of the Center for Student Wellness, which offers weekly  pet therapy among other programs.

“Anecdotally, benefits of pet therapy include smiling faces in response to furry handshakes; audible ‘wows’ at the size of an Irish Wolfhound or tiny Yorkie; and intense feelings of nostalgia for a pet left at the family home,” said Dr. Laird. “But there are empirical studies suggesting that animal-assisted therapy has statistically significant health benefits, including improved blood pressure, lowered heart rate, and relief from anxiety and depression.”

Although the visit clearly benefited the students, Ely seemed to get as much out of it himself, giving slobbery kisses to anyone who ventured close to his face.

“This is just what I need before my first anatomy class,” one young woman said to her friend before picking up her notebook and heading off to class. “This is going to become a weekly routine for me.”

Offered by the Center for Student Wellness, weekly pet therapy is open to the entire community, including faculty and staff.

“Everyone could use some pet therapy,” said Dr. Laird.

To check the pet therapy schedule and find out about other wellness offerings, sign up for the Center for Student Wellness newsletter by emailing studentwellness@columbia.edu.

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