Published: Dec. 18, 2013

Therapy dogs help medical students relieve stress during exams

Contact(s): Sarina Gleason Media Communications office: (517) 355-9742, Geri Kelley College of Human Medicine office: (616) 233-1678 cell: (616) 350-7976

Thanks to Dr. Watson, College of Human Medicine students were offered a break from the stress and anxiety associated with final exams last week.

The doctor’s qualifications don’t include a medical degree, but, rather, a pedigree.

Dr. Watson is an Airedale, and he offers these students something needed during exam week: unconditional love and the calm assurance that all is well.

“Just when I start to get worked up on an exam, I think back to Dr. Watson here,” first-year student Cullen Salada said. “It definitely helps, because I love dogs so much.”

That’s why a year ago Laura Bennett, assistant director of student counseling and wellness at the College of Human Medicine, came up with the idea of bringing therapy dogs to the students in East Lansing and Grand Rapids during exam week.

“I’ve gotten a lot of hugs from students who said, ‘You have no idea how much this means to me,’” she said. For the students, exam week is “kind of like the last leg of a marathon,” Bennett said. “They’ve been working so hard. It’s the culmination of a long semester.”

With so much at stake, the students naturally are on edge. The therapy dogs are part of a broader program to ease that stress, including chair massages, yoga and music therapy, she said, but the dogs give the students something special.

“It’s that unconditional love and that silent support,” Bennett said. “Dogs have a sense of when someone is in need.”

In addition to arranging for the dogs to visit the two campuses during exam weeks, Bennett has initiated a pilot program to bring them into the Secchia Center in Grand Rapids once a month. She hopes the dogs not only help the students relax but “open their minds to more kinds of heeling,” she said.

Dr. Watson and his fellow therapy dogs – a Doberman named Bullet, a black lab mix named Jack, and a pair of standard poodles named Sophia and Maya – were doing an excellent job of making that point.

Each underwent obedience training followed by an eight-week course to qualify as a therapy dog, said Barb Geno, president of West Michigan Therapy Dogs, Inc., a nonprofit organization. The dogs make regular visits to hospitals and nursing homes, as well as to the Grand Rapids and East Lansing campuses.

“I love to see it when these students come over, and their faces light up,” said Michele Eidson, Dr. Watson’s owner.

Several students took a break, put down their books and came over for a little therapy.

“It actually helps me to – and this is going to sound silly – but it helps me to be happy,” said Bernadene Jayasundera, a second-year student. “For some reason, just having a dog is very therapeutic. It helps you to not think about anything but this animal in front of you that’s just filled with the best intentions.”