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Finals With Fido: Therapy Pups Visit Cal to Soothe Students’ Stress

December 11, 2013
by Fiona Hannigan

Clusters of Cal students burst into cheers outside Moffitt Library on Tuesday as they watched a fluffy blonde terrier perform “high-five” tricks and a bulldog roll over, her tongue—and belly—sticking out. For a few minutes, at least, the frenzy of finals had dissipated.

Said senior Emiko Minatoya-Shields: “I’m pretty sure you could just sob into their necks if you had just failed something.”

Pups are on campus this week as part of a University Health Services’ effort to reduce student stress. “Pet Hugs” events with Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (acronym ARF) have become a regular occurrence the first Tuesday of the month on Sproul Plaza. And for finals, the dogs put in an extra appearance.

“They’re all super sweet,” said Minatoya-Shields, who has wandered across these events before. She finds the experience provides the perfect antidote to test tension, and her face lights up when talking about the dogs. Her favorite “regular” is a chunky and huggable Bernese mountain dog named Koda-Bear.

Many students left pets behind at home, and appreciate getting the animal love they’ve been missing. “One of the dogs is the same breed as the dog I used to have,” said freshman Henry Foote, referring to a floppy-eared poodle mix he had been holding. It’s his first semester of college and his first time at Pet Hugs, which he learned about it via Twitter. “It’s a great event,” he said. “It brings a lot of joy.”

Human interaction with companion animals has been shown to boost physical and mental health, according to University Health Services. And no one who saw the ecstatic grins on students’ faces could doubt the evidence.

ARF tests and certifies the dogs, who take a 10-part test to determine suitable temperament. “Therapy dogs are born,” says owner Jeanne Dilworth. Accepted dogs and their owners, the “Pet Hug Pack,” then go wherever they are needed—nursing homes, rehab centers, campuses. The group includes both some rescue dogs and even a few therapy cats.

“This is my way of giving back,” said Dilworth, a Berkeley alumna, as her therapy dog Maddie rests comfortably in her arms.

Outside Moffitt on Tuesday, the scene-stealer was Gracie, a former show dog full of tricks. Most of the students lavishing attention on her are female. As a male student approaches, Gracie’s owner Sandy Reburn gives him some advice:  “Don’t go to, come here! All the girls are here.”

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