Students gathered in the Sellery residence hall lobby after a long day of classes, work, internships and studying. With midterm season in full swing, time to socialize and unwind is greatly needed. But it’s not just the dorm-life camaraderie that brought these students together on a Tuesday evening — it’s the five fluffy, slobbery dogs eagerly awaiting head pats and belly rubs.

The dogs and their owners are part of Dogs on Call, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit dedicated to “improving human health through service and therapy animals.” This dorm visit to Sellery is one of over 60 visits DOC makes to the University of Wisconsin campus during the school year in hopes of providing students with stress relief and a break from studying, according to DOC UW Events Coordinator Todd Trampe.

Considering the number of UW students seeking mental health counseling through university resources has increased by 35% in the last five years, and nearly three out of four enrolled college students in 2017 experienced a sense of “overwhelming anxiety” at one point or another, healthy ways to relieve stress are essential for college students. Connecting with a four-legged friend – whether through adoption, rescue or visits with animals through community events like DOC – can be one of those ways.

According to the CDC, the health benefits of owning or being around animals are vast. Pets can provide exercise opportunities, lower stress, decrease blood pressure and cholesterol levels, promote opportunities for socialization and aid in the management of loneliness and depression. In fact, a 2016 survey of pet owners found that 54% of respondents saw physical improvements from pet ownership, and 74% saw mental health improvements.

While petting Deacon, an English Setter happily sprawled on the floor of the DOC Sellery event, Grace Novak attested to the mental health benefits of being around animals. A dog lover missing her three furry friends at home, the UW freshman said DOC events are how she “fills the void” and takes her mind off the stresses of school.

“[When you’re here] you forget how much time you put into your major and your classes,” Novak said. “When you come to this, you feel more grounded.”

Relief for a “ruff” semester

Since its inception in 1999, DOC has operated under the idea that meaningful interactions with therapy animals can relieve stress and provide emotional support, Trampe said.

The nonprofit consists of roughly 120 animal-human volunteer teams who are certified through Pet Partners, a national organization that sets the teaching and evaluation standards necessary for pets and their owners to become a certified therapy team. Trampe explained that teams are tested for initial therapy animal registration and then re-tested every two years to ensure their training is kept current.

While pets do not have to meet a certain criteria in terms of age, size or breed to become therapy animals– DOC has cats, a guinea pig and even two mini horses – they must have a desirable temperament and enjoy human interaction.

When discussing the use of animals to aid in mental health, the distinction between therapy and service animals is an important one. According to Trampe, service dogs are trained for a specific duty to help a person with a need or disability, are permitted under federal law to go into all public places with their owners and are not to be interacted with by the public.

Therapy animals, on the other hand, do not fall under any federal guidelines and are only allowed to enter places where they are invited. Furthermore, therapy animals are meant to interact with people as much as possible.

“If our dogs went to some event or some place where nobody interacted with them, they would probably be like ‘What’s wrong here?'” Trampe said. “‘We must not be doing our job since nobody petted us.'”

Trampe explained that the nonprofit makes an effort to connect with college students because of the stressful situations university can create. With many students away from home for the first time and missing beloved family members — including their pets — DOC therapy teams fill the need students have for connecting with animals.

“Most kids will tell us that of all of their family members, it’s their dog they miss the most,” Trampe said.

The pressure of finals season also results in frequent DOC visits to the UW campus. Popular DOC events at UW libraries, such as Helen C. White and Steenbock, garner significant turnout from students looking to sit down, relax and take a much-needed break from the stressful studying routine practiced at the end of every semester.

Claire Michel, a UW freshman, attended the Sellery DOC event with Novak. While it was her first time at a DOC event, it wouldn’t be her last.

“I think it makes a really fun, little community,” Michel said. “It’s nice to pet the dogs and interact with them but also meet their owners and take a break, not think about school and be with other people. It’s a fun environment.”

Visiting UW dorms and libraries across campus is only a fraction of DOC’s outreach efforts – therapy animal teams also connect with people in nursing homes, hospice, hospitals and the Columbia Correctional Institution, according to the DOC website. Trampe said teams also connect with the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, Law School, Pharmacy School and Veterinary School.

A former high school teacher, Trampe got involved with DOC after he retired. For him, being able to volunteer with his best friend and engage with other people is what drew him to the nonprofit.

“Coming to campus really reassures us [volunteers] about the future because we meet so many impressive young people who are working hard to make life better for all of us,” Trampe said. “It’s reassuring to adults.”

Claws and effect

While some students enjoy short-term, low-stakes contact with animals to relieve stress, others opt for more permanent pet situations. Kiara Mutschler, a junior at UW, recently adopted Mittens, a year-and-a-half old tabby cat, specifically to help with her mental health.

Despite many prospective pet owners adopting younger animals, Mutschler said she actually wanted an older cat because they are less likely to be adopted. She also wanted a cat who had “chilled down” from kitten age in hopes it would be even less work and insisted her pet be adopted from a rescue.

Even with five other roommates, Mittens, or “Mitty,” is a great addition to the house, Mutschler said. One of her roommates is allergic, so Mitty is prevented from going in her areas, but he’s still a favorite among all in the house. Even Mutschler’s landlord was accommodating and did not require her to register Mitty as an emotional support animal.

Not all living situations are as easygoing, however. Some residences in Madison only allow cats while others do not allow pets at all, and some require pets to be registered as ESAs prior to moving in.

Clare Loughran, a senior at UW, adopted her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel after her apartment lease began. She wasn’t planning on adopting a dog, but after speaking with her therapist about the benefits a pet could have on her chronic depression and seeing the pup while volunteering at the Dane County Humane Society, she felt like it was a good idea.

Registering her dog as an ESA wasn’t too challenging – Loughran said her therapist wrote a letter confirming an ESA would help immensely with her mental health. She then worked it out with her landlord, who eventually allowed her to have the dog in the apartment.

Since then, other apartments Loughran has leased have been with landlords who are open to pets. But registering her dog as an ESA has helped.

“I definitely think it was worth it,” Loughran said. “Since there aren’t a lot of [housing] options if your pet isn’t registered … getting your pet registered if you need it is a really good option for you because there’s no restrictions on where you can live at all. Having my pet registered allowed me to stay on campus with my dog, without any problems.”

The process for having an ESA in UW campus housing is similar. According to the University Housing Emotional Support Animal Policy, approval of an ESA is determined on a case-by-case basis. Additionally, students seeking an ESA must complete the ESA request form, provide disability documentation that supports the request for an ESA and schedule an intake appointment with the McBurney Disability Center.

For Sam Yinn, a senior at UW, the ESA registration was a fairly easy process for his corgi Ritz. What has actually proved more challenging is potty training. Ritz “did his thing” in one of Yinn’s roommates’ rooms instead of on his piddle pad. With accidents becoming less frequent, Yinn hopes to eventually transition Ritz to using the bathroom.

“It sounds kind of weird but I’m trying to teach him how to use a human toilet,” Yinn said.

As someone who gets stressed easily, Yinn said having a dog is comforting and keeps him in a good mood. He also finds himself exercising more – going on jogs and taking walks – which helps to improve his mental health.

Loughran’s dog has also forced her to get out of the house more. She explained that having someone else to take care of forces her to also prioritize herself.

“I have a problem taking care of myself, which a lot of people have a problem with when they’re depressed … so having someone else to take care of really helps because it’s also benefiting myself,” Loughran said. “I have to walk her at least twice a day and so I get out of my apartment at least twice a day, which is something that when I didn’t have her I wouldn’t do if I was in a depressive episode.”

Similarly, Mutschler said it’s also having someone that depends on and needs her so much that provides the most comfort.

“It’s nice to have something to come home to and having something that’s actually dependent on you for their whole life … and so excited to see you when you get back,” Mutschler said. “It feels nice to just be so deeply loved by something that it needs to be around you all the time.”

Paws-itive impacts

For Stephanie Koester, Assistant Director of the UW Shelter Medicine Program, her love for animals and the positive impacts they had on her mental health while in school followed her into adult life.

Between her sophomore and junior year at UW, Koester took a part time job at the Dane County Humane Society and fell in love with the shelter and animal welfare. It wasn’t long before she realized she was her happiest when surrounded by animals. Come junior year, Koester moved from housing that didn’t allow pets into a place that did, specifically so she could incorporate animals into her home life too.

With help from the Humane Society, Koester began fostering kittens and puppies for as short as a few days and as long as a few weeks. Her current pet, a Pit Bull mix, was her first “foster failure,” or rather, a foster dog she fell in love with and wound up adopting.

Koester said her decision to foster improved her mental health immensely.

“Before I got into fostering, I was struggling in school and I couldn’t quite figure out why I was in a slump,” Koester said. “That’s when I made that decision to look into new housing where I could [foster], and I would say it made a huge difference in my mental health while I was in school.”

Not only did she benefit from the study breaks and exercise fostering animals forced her to do, it also improved her friendships and allowed her to meet new people. Koester said her neighbors and roommates were supportive and friends always wanted to come over to spend time with the foster animals.

“It’s just like this fun conversation piece and … I think it was a really good social improvement in my life,” she said. “I kind of got my whole community of friends involved in helping.”

Having a support system helped alleviate some of the challenges that came with fostering animals, Koester explained, but she also had to make changes in her daily life to support the animals, too.

Coming home between classes to feed the pets or walk them or both and reworking her social life around their needs were some of the ways she prioritized the animals. In turn, her mental health benefited from the new schedule.

She stressed that even while on a budget, involving pets in student life is quite feasible. Adopting from a shelter often comes with the benefit of the pet already being spayed or neutered, vaccinated and with all medical care necessary to introduce them to a new home.

“That’s not to say there won’t be expenses down the road, but when you adopt you do know that you’re getting a healthy animal that’s already gotten the initial veterinary care that it needs,” she said.

For students interested in fostering animals, Koester suggests doing so through a shelter program like she did.

“Most places that you can foster through will provide you with the supplies you need,” Koester said. “Definitely check in with our local shelters and rescues. Madison has a lot of really great rescues in the area that are foster-based rescues, so they are always needing foster homes.”

Koester is currently involved with Underdog Pet Rescue of Wisconsin, which offers a volunteer opportunity where people can temporarily open their homes to foster animals while their foster parents are, for example, out of town for a few days.

Opportunities such as this are great for students who are unsure they want a pet or for those interested in possibly fostering animals long term, Koester explained.

“It can be a really good opportunity to kind of have a trial of an animal in your home and see how it goes, see if it’s going to be the right fit while you’re in college,” Koester said. “And if you find one that you fall in love with in the process and you want to keep it, that’s great … the organizations are never upset if you decide that you want to keep the pet. They celebrate that the pet found a new home.”