Science Behind the Snuggles: How Boynton Health’s PAWS Enhances Mental Health

October 18, 2023

Calling all animal lovers!

Animal Assisted Interaction (AAI) is a partnership between specially selected animals and their human practitioners; both have training to provide the intentional delivery of therapeutic and educational services for human learning and well-being. AAI requires cooperation between animals and humans to promote positive mental and physical health outcomes, offering a different approach than conventional therapy. This collaboration between animals and humans means that pets accompany their owners to a facility and interact with participants in settings such as assisted living, schools, or medical institutions. However, only some pups on the block are eligible. Selected animals are temperament tested, screened by a veterinarian, and receive specialized training beyond obedience classes before serving their communities in the cutest way possible. These AAI animals differ from service and emotional support animals, as these four-legged friends train to provide affection and comfort rather than prepare for a specific owner or task. 

Student kissing kitty
Who's happier?

Of course, this sounds great, but is there any research supporting AAI? Yes, studies have shown that dogs can read human emotions – dubbing them man’s best friend for a reason! They can differentiate between human emotions and facial expressions, paying more profound attention to cheerful faces and sounds, regardless of language. According to the National Institute of Health, interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, lower blood pressure, reduce loneliness, and increase feelings of social support while boosting mood. 

Studies have also shown patients with dementia, multiple sclerosis, stroke, spinal cord injuries, and more may experience positive results when participating in AAI programs. Some of these improvements include decreased stress, anxiety, and sadness while increasing pleasure, general alertness, and improved behavior in patients with dementia. AAI sessions can help target various goals, such as improving range of motion, strength, endurance, balance, sensation, and mobility, and they can also help build self-esteem, motivation, and social and communication skills. With many beneficial outcomes, AAI combines other therapy methods to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, ADHD, and more! 

Considering the life of a college student is inherently stressful,  many higher education institutions worldwide are showing a growing interest in the positive impact animals can have on human well-being. Often faced with new challenges and priorities to juggle, a college student's existence is unlike any other phase of life. Balancing schoolwork, relationships, jobs, social life, and more while navigating emerging adulthood proves tricky for just about anyone. Many college students live independently for the first time, meaning they may also miss the affection and routines once shared with loved ones, big and small. Especially as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, students need various positive opportunities to find relief from the daily responsibilities and mental stressors inherent to college life.

Student petting puppy
Student's best friend

Enter Boynton Health's PAWS – Pet Away Worry and Stress - an Animal-Assisted Interactions (AAI) program that provides students with social and emotional comfort via registered therapy animals. We’ve got all your favorite furry friends, including dogs, cats, rabbits, and chickens, not to mention a licensed clinical social worker staffing each session. PAWS is offered Monday through Thursday at various locations and times throughout the academic year and is accessible to everyone in the University of Minnesota community. Over 100 PAWS teams (the human and their animal) help make PAWS possible, and while these events do not equate to therapy, they are undoubtedly therapeutic and allow students to bond with pets and their owners. Furthermore, 9 out of 10 students who have attended PAWS agreed that PAWS helps provide some level of relief from stress.

With dates 4 days a week across campus, PAWS is here to aid our students in their mental health. We are so doggone excited about meeting the students and helping them to feline adjusted to their daily lives on campus.

Written by: Gracie Kibort

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