HAMMOND — Just outside of Southeastern Louisiana University’s Sims Memorial Library on Thursday, Rusty, a small, frisky Chihuahua and pug mix, whipped his tail around as he swiftly paced from one college student to another.
As he pulled on his leash and headed in the direction of SLU student Blake Matherne, of Ponchatoula, Rusty greeted him warmly.
“I love animals,” said the college senior, as he visited with Rusty and other dogs during Pet Therapy, an annual event that uses dogs to help students relax before they take their final exams.
“I think it gets the students’ minds off of the workload they may have to do,” Matherne said. “They’re (pets) so happy to see you, and I’m always so happy to see them.”
As the two met, they each seemed to share a smile.
Thursday was the second time SLU has held Pet Therapy, and Beth West, a systems librarian at the university who spearheads the event, said she believes the program helps to reduce students’ stress around exam time.
An hour into the event, the front walkway of the library was packed with eager students. More than 200 already had waited their turns to pet one of a half-a-dozen dogs brought to the event by the St. Tammany Humane Society.
“It’s really fun for the students,” West said, adding that studies show that animals can reduce “our stress level.”
“It’s something you can stop by for five minutes and feel good about,” she said.
West first organized the event after learning that other places, such as Yale Law Library, were using therapy animals to help reduce students’ stress.
While the dogs were not typical “therapy dogs,” West said the partnership between the university and the humane society is twofold.
“I didn’t feel like we needed ‘therapy’ dogs because any dogs will help, and rescue dogs need the attention,” West said.
Sarah Stickley, of West Virginia, and her roommate, Kevin Lejune, came to Pet Therapy to “play with the puppies,” but are now the proud owners of Pinta, a small black and white, long-haired dog.
“I was going to talk to them about adoption, and I met her and it was love at first site,” she said. “She’s 100 percent perfect.”
Stickley said Pinta is spayed and microchipped, has had all of her shots and is on heart-worm-prevention medicine.
Stickley said the event was a perfect way to help college students relax during exam week.
Stickley, who is considering a career helping people overcome post traumatic stress disorder, said petting dogs releases oxytocin, which calms people down, and makes them feel “warm and happy.”
Studies have shown that when a person pets a dog dopamine is released in the person’s brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.
“I think this is a brilliant idea the week before finals,” Stickley said. “It’s a break from the crazy tension that happens during finals.”
West said she hopes that by having shelter dogs at the event, she can interest students in volunteering at the shelter or at similar events.
“The goal isn’t to adopt out the dogs but to get the dogs out and raise awareness about the humane society so students can sign up as volunteers,” West said.
To become a volunteer, call (985) 892-7387.