Therapy dogs help medical students de-stress during finals

Second-year medical students Ana Martinez and Greisy Harvell

Medical school is extremely stressful. Finals week adds to the pressure. Cue the therapy dogs.

Clue, an Australian Shepherd, was the first to answer the call for a little stress relief. He and trainer George Griffin visited Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine (HWCOM) at lunchtime last Wednesday to give students a respite from days of nearly non-stop studying.

“It’s something we’ve been wanting to do for a while, and when we heard FIU main was doing Dog Days for finals week, we arranged to have therapy dogs brought here a couple of days,” said Jessica Lewis, HWCOM’s associate director of the Panther Learning Communities (PLC).

Oscar Hernandez was one of 70 medical students who came out to meet Clue. Hernandez barely had time to recover from a tough reproductive system final on Monday, when on Tuesday his beloved dog died. “It was nice to see HWCOM brought us a therapy dog. It made a huge difference in my day,” Hernandez said after some bonding time with the friendly and mellow canine.

A 2014 study published in Academic Medicine found that medical students, residents and early career physicians experience more burnout than their peers outside the medical field. Other studies have shown numerous benefits from interacting with therapy dogs – from reducing blood pressure and anxiety to promoting self-esteem and stimulating memory.

“It’s really nice to relax and think about something else even for just a little while,” said first-year student Amy-Morgan Mycoff, who got to play with Sprint. The 5-year-old Border Collie delighted students on Thursday with tricks and a spunky personality. “He’s adorable and probably smarter than us,” she said with a smile.

Like Mycoff, most of the students sat on the floor or got on their knees to be at eye level with the dogs. They gently brushed back the dogs’ hair with their hands, and even let the dogs lick their faces. They talked to the dogs as if they were long-time buddies.

Sprint’s owner and trainer, Dale Avick, has four therapy dogs who regularly visit children and elderly. This was their first visit to college students. But regardless of the audience, Avick said she’s noticed a universal reaction to the dogs: “It’s the smiles on the faces and the calm that comes over people when they touch the dogs.”

“Even seeing the dog happy makes everyone happy,” said second-year student Caytlin Gallagher, who was thankful for the brief respite from studying. “You don’t even have to pet the dog. Maybe its emotions transfer to us. It lightens the mood.”

Throughout the schoolyear, the PLC Wellness Program provides medical students with different ongoing opportunities to de-stress including cooking, yoga and aroma therapy. “The dogs have been the most successful,” Lewis said. “We’re now thinking of doing it twice a year.”

It looks like the College of Medicine may be going to the dogs, in a good way.