Dogs relieve finals stress at Sacramento State

University students bundled up in jackets, beanies and scarves knelt on cold cement Tuesday morning in near freezing temperatures to pet Chou Chou, Luca, Meka, Ringo and Wyatt.

The dogs from Lend a Heart visited the Sacramento State campus on a mission to help alleviate stress the week before most students are set to take finals. It seemed to be working. The young men and women laughed and smiled as they gathered around and took turns getting photos with the visiting celebrities.

“It is amazing,” said Karen Durst, clinical director of counseling and psychological services at California State University, Sacramento. “The smiles. The laughter. The relaxation. Interacting with the dogs really keeps people calm.”

Durst said that college students often face internal pressure about finals, as well as family expectations about their academic performance. She said these pressures are intensified by the holiday season, which includes the stress of leaving their independent adult lives at college to return to their parents’ house.

Lend a Heart, which usually takes therapy dogs to visit convalescent hospitals, adult day care programs and elementary schools, first came to CSUS last spring. Dogs from the organization also have visited students at the University of California, Davis, and the McGeorge School of Law to help relieve stress.

“It goes over very well,” said Kim Robinson of Lend a Heart, who brought Wyatt, her English shepherd. She said the students often tell her they miss pets they’ve left at home.

Nancy Kalish, a recently retired CSUS psychology professor, brought Chou Chou, her briard. “I spent my entire career giving them finals and adding to their stress,” she said. “Now it’s my turn to help them de-stress.”

The “de-stressing” is more fun, she said. “They are thanking me for coming,” she said laughing. “They never thanked me for coming before.”

Nearby, another group of students encircled Meka – a dachshund decked out in a red sweater. Each student took turns handing the dachshund a treat in return for a high-five. “Look at all these kids,” said Pat Hull, visiting with her Labrador retriever, Ringo. “You’d think we are handing out McDonald’s or something.”

Most of the students Tuesday acknowledged that this week is one of little sleep and a lot of studying as they prepare for finals being given this week and next. “It’s hard to relax,” said senior Sammie Moreno.

“(Students have) tons of stress – finals, outside lives, jobs, being away from home,” said Allie Rummerfield, a junior at CSUS.

The students shared strategies for getting through the next two weeks. Some said they exercise, while others play games on their phones or drink tea or have a glass of wine.

Christopher Sarmiento has two finals this week and three more next week that mean studying late into the night, sometimes all night. He listens to music or takes walks by the river – often with his dog – when he feels stressed.

Zachary Ward, a staff psychologist with counseling services at UC Davis, recommends that students attend to the fundamentals – diet, exercise and sleep – when they are under stress. UC Davis students are taking their final exams this week.

“Oftentimes when we are experiencing a significant time of stress, (the fundamentals) go first and, unfortunately, this is when they are needed the most,” Ward said.

Ward and Durst recommend that students reach out to family and friends for social support when they feel overwhelmed. “If it seems too bad, come to counseling,” Durst said.

Both universities offer group and individual counseling, as well as emergency services to students who need mental health care. The schools also offer workshops and classes throughout the school year to help teach students to alleviate stress.

“We are busier when the pressure starts at midterms until the end of the year,” Durst said of demand for mental health services.

This week, UC Davis launched “Just in Case” – a mobile-friendly website – that offers students information about mental health resources based on their answers to questions. The website’s menu offers choices like “I’m struggling to cope,” “I’m worried about a friend” and “I might hurt myself.” The program then assesses feelings and behaviors and guides students to resources at the school and in the community, according to university officials.

Next week, CSUS students who need someone to talk to or just a quiet place to relax can go to The Well – which offers recreational, student health and counseling services – for “Soup and Tea.” There, they can talk to peer health educators about their concerns, relax and have a warm drink or cup of soup. If peer counselors talk to a student who seems to be overstressed, they will refer them to counseling, Durst said.