Middle Georgia State students ease stress with pet therapy

jmink@macon.comDecember 10, 2013 

Like many college students, Hannah Merritt spent Tuesday in Middle Georgia State College’s library, devoting most of her time to a paper that is due. Unlike a majority of students, Merritt spent some of that time on the library floor, playing with a dog named Ziggy.

Pet therapy is becoming a trend at colleges across the nation, and Middle Georgia State’s Macon campus is jumping aboard. As students prepared for final exams and research papers, they swarmed the campus library, where they pet dogs to relieve some stress.

“It’s working for me,” said Merritt, a freshman from Macon. “It’s a cute little puppy -- it takes your mind off an exam.”

There are several pet therapy groups in Middle Georgia, and one of those groups, Paws to Care, volunteered to bring some animals by the college campus. Several dogs were scheduled to visit the library, and the first two were Maylee, a 15-month-old Yorkshire terrier, and Ziggy, a 9-year-old mixed breed.

“Therapy dogs are used to comfort people and basically be a companion,” said Darcy Sun, a member of Paws to Care and a health sciences faculty member at the college. “Studies show they have good psychological effects.”

When most people play with dogs, they experience decreased heart rates, blood pressures and stress levels, Sun said.

For that reason, dog therapy groups often take their pets to hospitals and nursing homes, but they can have the same effect on stressed college students, she said.

“It’s great therapy, especially during finals week and mid-terms,” Sun said. “They calm the students down.”

On Tuesday, students circled the animals, petting and holding them. Ziggy rolled on his back as a couple students scratched his stomach. Maylee bounced from student to student, taking time to cuddle.

It’s the type of reaction Felicia Haywood was hoping for. As assistant director of the Macon campus library, Haywood sees her share of tears this time of year as students stress about exams. So she decided to do something about it.

Haywood had heard of pet therapy at other colleges. She reached out to Sun and other faculty members who are part of pet therapy groups in Macon. A dog lover herself, Haywood knows firsthand how therapeutic the animals can be.

“When I’m home at night and I’m petting on my little guy, that’s the best part of my day,” she said.

It’s the first year the college has offered the event, and Haywood initially was nervous turnout would be low. But within the first 30 minutes, about 50 students had dropped by.

“Look at those smiling faces,” Haywood said. “I like to see the smiles, and this is not a time of year when I see them smiling.”

Sophomore Patrick Layson stood near the entrance of the library, cradling Maylee in his arms and scratching her ears.

“How can that face not take all your stress away?” he asked.

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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