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Health--it's what we all have in common: whether we're trying to maintain our health through good habits or improve our failing health. "Bridges to Health" is 90.5 WESA's health care reporting initiative examining everything from unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act to transparency in health care costs; from a lack of access to quality care for minority members of our society to confronting the opioid crisis in our region. It's about our individual health and the well-being of our community.Health care coverage on 90.5 WESA is made possible in part by a grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

School Got You Stressed? This Program Has Students Pet Dogs As A Healthy Form Of Release

On a Tuesday night, the first floor of the Cathedral of Learning is brimming with students, their conversations bouncing off the high, arched ceilings. They sit on the ground, in more than a dozen small circles; at the center of each circle is a dog. 

Oliver, a golden retriever, lays on his side as he's pet by five or six people at once. Despite all the attention, Oliver is calm and quiet. That's because he, like every other dog here, is a therapy dog from the College Canines program at Humane Animal Rescue

Every Tuesday evening, the dogs come to the cathedral with their handlers to hang out with students like University of Pittsburgh freshman Gretchen Murphy-Zug, who said that tests are often a source of stress for her.

"It's a very different environment from my high school," said Murphy-Zug. "Plot twist! You actually have to study to do well."

Marni Greenwald, assistant medical director at Pitt's Student Health Service, said she sees students every day whose stress has manifested in physical symptoms.

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Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA
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90.5 WESA
Marni Greenwald is a physician at Pitt's Student Health Service.

"There's a lot of stomach issues, whether it be diarrhea or heartburn," said Greenwald. "A lot of muscle tension, neck pain and back pain."

Greenwald said that there also cases where stress has led to much more serious situations.

"We’ll sometimes see students who present with evidence of self-harm: for example, cutting. We also see a fair amount of students with disordered eating," said Greenwald.

Greenwald said it's important for students to find healthy ways to stay on top of their stress before it gets that bad. She said things like exercise and meditation work well, but so can simply hanging out with a dog.

"That calmness and being in your happy place, it does come down to a chemical," said Greenwald. 

The chemical is oxytocin. A 2015 study published by Japanese researchers in Science magazine showed that when we make eye contact with dogs, our brains release what is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone.” It’s associated with the good feelings we get when we interact with people like our parents or intimate partners. 

Murphy-Zug said she feels calmer after hanging out with the therapy dogs each week.

“Like I can relax, just go back and chill and not worry about anything," said Murphy-Zug. "Because if nothing else, the dogs don’t care if you fail a class.” 

The therapy dog events at Pitt have become increasingly popular since they first started up in 2002, said Marsha Robbins, who runs the College Canines program at Humane Animal Rescue.

"At first we weren’t allowed in the buildings, we would come out and just hang out on the streets, hang out on corners with our dogs," said Robbins. "And that was a very small scale, we had maybe five or six dogs, maybe 20 kids a week."

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Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA
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90.5 WESA
In addition to overseeing the College Canines program, Marsha Robbins also teaches the therapy dog training courses at Humane Animal Rescue.

Robbins said around 200 students now stop by the weekly events at the Cathedral of Learning. This Halloween, when they dressed the dogs up in costumes, she said it was about a thousand.

In the last two years, the program has even expanded beyond Pitt’s campus to similar events at Point Park and Duquesne Universities, said Robbins.

Robbins said that one of her favorite parts of the program is tracking the progress of students who start coming to the Tuesday night events as freshmen and stay on through senior year.

"By the time they graduate, they come with their friends and hang out with the dogs and you can just see them grow into these secure, wonderful, purposeful beings," said Robbins.

Murphy-Zug could end up being one of those freshmen that comes back year after year.

"I specifically made my schedule for next semester around the fact that I didn’t want to have anything on Tuesdays from 7 to 8," said Murphy-Zug.

WESA’s Bridges to Health covers the well-being of Pennsylvanians and is funded by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.