Since the university is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has adapted and is now being held through online Zoom sessions.
“More than ever, mental health is a concern,” said Kevin Bubolz, who participates with his therapy dog Ellie, a golden retriever. “A lot of people are going through a lot of different challenges and really need these animal assisted interactions to help bring back a sense of normalcy in this time of uncertainty.”
In the virtual sessions, students can move between different “rooms” to visit the animals of their choice and interact with the handlers and other students.
The groups bond over the animals but eventually open up about how they are feeling, covering topics like fears over coronavirus, the challenges of online learning and uncertainty over the job market following graduation.
“As soon as a student is brave enough to say, ‘I’m really struggling,’ other students step forward and say, ‘I am too,’” explained Animal Assisted Interactions Coordinator Tanya Bailey, who started the program seven years ago.
Bailey said, while in person sessions are preferable, the digital interactions are still effective because of a concept called “mirror neurons.”
“What that means is that when you are observing somebody else do something that’s a pattern your brain recognizes, you oftentimes will feel the same feeling. So just the sheer act of the owner of that animal petting the animal, the student observing that, their brain recognizes that pattern and it brings peace,” Bailey explained. “A lot of times it brings joy and happiness and they laugh as well.”
“You leave out of there feeling so euphoric and so happy, it really does carry on into the rest of your day and for me personally into the rest of my week,” added student Mariah Flores.