The announcements for the Center for the Student Experience-sponsored “Play Day” touted an enticing array of activities designed to promote maximum stress release and lighthearted fun. The calendar of events read like a childhood fantasy birthday party come to life: ceramic painting, chair yoga, pizza, goodie bags, ice cream sundaes and, perhaps most intriguing of all, therapy dogs. To this reader, that last element conjured visions of frankfurters spiked with ginko biloba. It was hard not to wonder whether this was some trendy new food experiment engineered to fuse childhood nostalgia with natural healing properties.
As it turns out, the above type of therapy dog is a culinary idea whose time has yet to come. Play Day’s dogs, of course, were of the canine variety. And their therapeutic benefits were immediately apparent to anyone who stepped foot into Room 201, the Play Day hub, where clusters of students huddled around the three furry pets laying on the floor basking in all the attention.
“It’s hard to feel stressed when you’re petting a dog,” said Illustration student, Bryan Wong as he cozied up to Leila, a chestnut Hovawart, a German dog originally bred to guard medieval estates known for being devoted family companions. “My dog died in 2010 so now I’m thinking of getting one. But this is the next best thing.”
It’s no accident that the CSE decided to let the dogs out during Week 10, just as students’ end-of-term pressure-levels were poised to edge into the red zone. While the last Play Day featured de-stressing massages; this year the ACCD opted for therapy dogs so students would be able to receive an immediate dose of mood-elevation without waiting in line for a one-on-one session on the massage table. “We realized we could accommodate more students at once with the therapy dogs,” said Darshana Lele, Art Center’s director of counseling and wellness. “Dogs are emotionally therapeutic because they bring students into the present moment. People create strong positive attachments with pets, which has such a great impact on your physical and mental health.”
All four of the dogs present at Play Day work under an umbrella organization called BARK, which stands for Beach Animals Reading with Kids. The all-volunteer program was originally founded to promote a love of reading among young kids, who were invited to read aloud to the dogs. BARK then expanded its offerings to include dog interactions in schools, hospitals, senior living facilities and veteran’s centers.
Judging by the enchantment emanating from Room 201 as Groucho, an affectionate yellow lab, rolled around on his back bicycling his legs as students scratched his belly, BARK’s first visit to Art Center will almost certainly not be its last. “I don’t even have class today but I came in just to see the dogs,” said Illustration student Lester Dilorenzo. “I feel really fulfilled being around animals. Not having dogs around I feel socially starved. This week, as we hit the final stretch, is when we need them the most.”
And who knows, by the time the next Play Day rolls around, some enterprising culinary scientist might have developed an edible therapy dog to go along with the real ones. Here’s hoping.