MIT Puppy Lab: Therapy Dogs for Everyone!
Most people might think that therapy dogs are only found in senior care centers. However, one student group is providing the university community with a chance to connect through unconditional puppy love. Massachusetts Institution of Technology Puppy Lab is the club that makes this happen – catalyzing deep and lasting relationships through pets.
Its main activity, “Lab hour”, is an event where therapy dogs and students can meet for two hours a week, providing easier access to pets on campus.
Puppy Lab was started two years ago by Mechanical Engineering graduate student Stephanie Ku and her dog. She first received funding from the MindHandHeart Initiative, which funds students’ ideas to help the community.
Becoming a therapy dog isn’t as hard as you might expect. Therapy dogs differ from service dogs, in that they don’t need to be trained from birth. Therapy dogs just need to have a good disposition and like people. They also need to be well-behaved and follow basic commands such as sit, stay and down. Most of Puppy Lab’s therapy dogs belong to people on campus, but get certified by an independent group. Dog owners attend a class in which they learn about how to handle different situations, how to interact with people and what dog’s need to become certified.
Almost anyone at MIT who has a dog can join Puppy Lab. Many MIT professors, administrators and other staff bring their pets to be therapy dogs at the club, graduate students and alumni also share their dogs with other students. “We don’t own the pets. We just help organize the people who want to share their pets with students. We publicize and organize,” said Samantha Amey-Gonzalez, President of MIT Puppy Lab.
The biggest strength of animal therapy is that it helps students reduce their stress levels by interacting with the dogs. As it is difficult for students to keep a pet while at university, Puppy Lab gives them a chance for playtime with the animals that they may have had at home. The animals benefit from it too.
“There is a therapy dog named Ben. He goes to almost every weekly event as one of our best members. I was talking to his owner once, and he said that Ben really loves Puppy Lab. So, whenever he walks home, and passes a place where Ben has had an event…Ben stops and pull back and wants to find students to get attention,” Amey-Gonzalez said with a laugh. “It really matters if the dogs like what they’re doing, and that the dogs love getting the attention of the students.”
Amey-Gonzalez said that it is important to host events in a large space, where the dogs can take a break for a little if they need to. Dogs also need to be covered by insurance and have therapy dog certification. With the right space, insurance and dogs to share, setting up a puppy therapy club is not difficult. Amey-Gonzalez, who is studying to become a vet, said that there are scientific aspects on how animals improve mental health. Different endorphins are increased when you're petting a dog or even just looking at one.
“I think the time with the therapy animals gives you a few minutes of the day where you can think about, you know, what's in front of you.” Amey-Gonzalez said. “Our mission is to leverage the scientificallyproven stress-relieving effects of animal interaction to improve the state of community mental health and wellness. We envision an inviting space where MIT-affiliated certified therapy dogs are available in weekly shifts for anyone to visit.”
Room 13: Counseling throughout the night
Every night, from 7p.m. to 7a.m., two male and female students stay awake, waiting for others who might want to visit them. When the door opens, a cozy room greets the visitor. Snacks and comfortable sofas are there, beds and tables for the tired student counselors are well prepared. For counseling, they move to the other room where cushy chairs and a teddy bear await.
Opened first by Margaret McKenna with Dr. Paul A. Walters Jr., psychiatrist to University Health Services in 1971. According to The Harvard Crimson, the historic peer counseling club is open for any Harvard student to visit. The club started with 14 graduate students, and now has about 30 to 40 staff. Their core value is simple: offering confidential and anonymous counseling services to students and being a listening ear. Billy Schmitt and Sabrina Wu, Co-Chairs of Room 13, told Ewha Voice about the important considerations for a peer counseling group.
“It’s a combination of everything that makes our students come through our doors. Confidentiality and amiability is something that is unique [to Room 13], as there are tons of private resources on campus,” Schmitt said. “But sometimes these are mandated to report some of the stuff they hear ‘up the chain’, but we are not like that. I think there are few other resources on campus that are anonymous. We are unique that we just accept the person on whatever they are saying or representing."
Princeton students host Mental Health Week
Princeton University’s annual Mental Health Week was opened in February with a poetry performance by famous slam poet Neil Hilborn, whose work often deals with his own experiences of mental disorders. The event took place at Richardson Auditorium and was arranged by members of Breakout Princeton, and Mental Health Initiative (MHI), the student board that hosts the Mental Health Week.
Mental Health Week is an annual event that aims to raise awareness on mental health, which has become a serious issue for students. During this year’s event, the school’s Counseling and Psychological Services staff met students and discussed plans for the school’s student counseling services. MHI also held an openmic session called the Me Too Monologues Project where students send anonymous stories about one’s own experiences regarding identity, race, sexuality and mental health, which is after performed by actors on stage. Eleven students each gave a monologue and discussed issues ranging from disability rights to bipolar disorder.
“Our board of directors thought the best way to get people engaged was through art, especially performance art. Before Mental Health Week, we’ve organized a couple of open-mic events where students go on stage and share whatever they want. Maybe we’ll reserve a café, and say, ‘If you want to share anything, go ahead.’” said Nadeem Demian, one of the co-chairs of MHI. “We want to engage the campus community in conversations about mental health, and we hope it will help destigmatize it.”
During the event, Hilborn talked about how poetry became an outlet for his emotions and helped him cope with his mental illness, which later became the title of one of his best-known poems “OCD”, (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
“To me, writing is like therapy. I’m right up against my thoughts inside my head when I write it down,” said Hilborn. “If you’re a person who enjoys writing, I’d definitely recommend it as a way [to deal with your own mental issues]. But people are all different, and others have other methods, too.”
Different student bodies were involved in planning Neil’s performance. MHI and Breakout Princeton are the official hosts of the event, which is co-sponsored by the psychology department and the Undergraduate Student Government of Princeton. Members of Songline Poetry Group, one of Princeton’s student clubs, delivered the performances at the opening event.
“Through his poetry performance, and the Q&A with the performer, we hope this event could provide a space for open discussions,” said Nourhan Ibrahim, another co-chair of MHI. “We hope that attendees can continue this dialogue about mental health after the event, and during the upcoming Mental Health Week.”