Students stream into Steenbock Library at the UW-Madison during midterm exams week, but they aren’t here to cram for tests.
They plop down on the floor and begin petting, stroking and rubbing tummies. Not each other’s tummies, but the ones belonging to members of Dogs on Call, a pet therapy organization.
“I have been looking forward to this for a week,” says Lindsey Bliefernicht, who this early evening is stroking Tiberius, a 108-pound great Pyrenees. “This reminds me of being at home with my golden Lab. It is so comforting.”
All around the room, dogs are spreading the love. Students, many of whom arrive looking stressed and preoccupied, are melting into little love puddles, suddenly smiling and relaxed.
It’s one of a number of ways campus libraries try to help students deal with the pressure of exams, says Steenbock librarian Jessica Newman.
“We always have a jigsaw puzzle on a table for students to work on,” she says. “And we offer other stress relievers like soap bubbles on the deck, bubble wrap to pop and origami projects.”
Dogs on Call has been visiting Steenbock at midterms every semester for three years. They also drop in at the Campus Library in Helen C. White Hall each semester during finals week. In between, they often visit students at campus dorms as well as the Engineering College and other professional schools. For today’s visit, a therapy cat joins the six therapy dogs at Steenbock. The cat, a seal point Siamese named Oliver, greets students in a separate space.
“This is so great,” says Brianna Davis, a freshman who plans to major in education. “It’s definitely a stress reliever. And I really miss my dog at home, so this is just what I need right now.”
Research shows that interaction with pets decreases the level of cortisol — a stress hormone — in people and increases endorphins, known as the happiness hormone. Universities all around the country have taken note of these findings and many are welcoming dog visits.
Dogs on Call is an all-volunteer organization, and its visits are free. The dogs and their humans have a busy schedule of visits to schools, libraries, hospice facilities, nursing homes and hospitals. About half of the 120 members of Dogs on Call are active in this therapy work, while the rest participate less frequently. The organization also offers a variety of therapy dog training classes to pets and their owners.
Liz Morrison, who visited the students at Steenbock with her English bulldog Charlotte, says it’s always gratifying to see how people unwind when there’s a dog to pet.
“I remember one evening when we went to one of the dorms. One girl came in looking very upset and stressed out to the max,” Morrison says. “One of our dogs, a beagle named Buttons, has a way of zoning in on someone who needs her, and Buttons immediately went to this girl and sat down beside her. The girl started petting Buttons, and then she started to smile.
“It’s wonderful to watch people forget their troubles and just enjoy being with a dog for a few minutes,” Morrison explains. “It’s why we do this work.” n
Dogs on Call
Number of active dogs:
Frequency of visits:
Active therapy dogs average two visits a week
Any breed or mutt with a calm and friendly disposition