At Sarah Lawrence College, conference week is the equivalent of writing endless analytical papers, consuming large quantities of caffeine - and, playing with the staff’s beloved pouches. Three years ago, nurse practitioner Cynthia Schaffler and registered nurse Sheryl Last created the “De-Stressing with Pets” program, which occurs about four times a year on the North Lawn of the SLC campus.
The nurses said they were inspired to create the program based on resources their own college kids had access to. For example, Last’s daughter was able to spend time with service dogs through a program at Lafayette College, Schaffler explained.
“I think it just started spontaneously,” Schaffler said. “At the time, I know my dogs had died and I had just gotten two puppies, and Sheryl [had] a very friendly, great dog who [was] missing her kids and we said I wonder if we could just do that with our own dogs.”
The process of starting the program was very easy, though they did have to schedule it around the weather forecast and their work hours at the clinic.
“We looked around to see if we needed any special permission and the campus doesn’t really have a lot of rules,” Schaffler added, “so we figured that since we were staff and we were bringing dogs that we knew, we would just try it, and our medical director was really supportive.”
The first time that the nurses arranged the event, thirty to forty students showed up.
“We did it in the spring thinking around conference week that people needed a break and it was just an opportunity to get out of the library for a little while and have some puppy love,” Last said.
The initiative received an immense amount of positive feedback.
“It’s funny because within a couple of days, people were calling asking ‘When are you going to do that again?’” Schaffler said.
For the past three years, Last, enthusiastic owner of seven-year-old Cockapoo Reggie, and Schaffler, proud owner of two three-year-old Pomeranians Leo and Gus, have brought their dogs to the events regularly. A few other faculty members and friends of the SLC community have also attended with their dogs.
“Dogs in general provide so much love and affection towards people and it just makes you feel good,” Last pointed out.
While dogs may appear to have a mystifying effect on people’s emotions, there are specific scientific reasons behind the calming elements within the interaction.
According to animalsmart.org, “Playing with or petting an animal can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol.”
The hormones that are released can lead to some major health benefits.
“Studies have shown that pet ownership seems to decrease coronary-disease risk factors involving blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides, among other things,” Marlene Cimons wrote for the Washington Post.
In addition to the scientific reasons behind de-stressing with pets, the nurses explained what they believe are the best health benefits of interacting with their dogs.
“[At the event, the students] started socializing and interacting with one another and talking about their dogs at home. So not even was it great from a standpoint of them playing with our dogs, but they were socializing with each other,” Last said.
While many are thrilled with the program, some students wish that they could have the opportunity to bond with other animals, such as cats.
“It is called ‘de-stress with pets,’ so that’s a more inclusive term than just dogs. Don’t forget about us cat people - we need to de-stress, too. This is a great campus. There are so many squirrels and chipmunks here. They’ll have so much fun,” Katy Greskovich (’19) said jokingly.
Last and Schaffler have already gotten requests from students about including different types of animals in the de-stressing sessions. While the nurses are open to the idea, they also had concerns about the practicality of it.
“We would almost have to do it indoors somewhere, like find a place like the Black Squirrel and set up a room and see if some [...] shelter was willing to bring some cats that maybe just needed some socializing,” Schaffler explained. “But again it’s hard to supervise because we are always worried about the animal’s and the student’s safety. So you get a little limited.”
Besides one unfortunate instance of Reggie peeing on a student’s backpack, the “De-Stressing with Pets” events have been a success at providing student with the opportunity to bond with the dogs and to get outside and enjoy the weather.
Alexa Di Luca '19