By the end of his freshman year at Johnson & Wales University, Josh Nackenson said he “wasn’t in a good place.”
His girlfriend died suddenly in another state, he had a heavy workload and he was still getting used to being on his own after moving to Miami from New Jersey.
Depression led to a short stay in the hospital, and after speaking with a therapist, he decided that a pet might help him get back on track. Nackenson walked across the street to Pet Supermarket in 2013 and bought a bunny. He named her Peanut.
“Everything has been better since,” said Nackenson, 20, who keeps the furry brown Peanut in a cage in his dorm room.
Peanut is not the only pet in the 40-apartment Arch Creek Residences. In fact, Johnson & Wales opened the pet-friendly dorm this academic year, recognizing that stressed-out students often do better when they can cuddle with a warm, furry friend.
“We saw the need, and so far everything is going great,” said Lou Kaminski, the school’s director of residential life.
Dogs have long been recognized for soothing anxiety, lowering blood pressure and boosting emotional connections. A 2005 study conducted at UCLA Medical Center found that when teams of volunteers and trained therapy dogs visited 76 hospitalized heart failure patients, the patients’ anxiety scores dropped 24 percent. For those who had a visit from a volunteer without a dog, the scores dropped only 10 percent.
“Dogs are a great comfort,’’ Katie Cole, the study’s lead author, wrote in an American Heart Association journal. “They make people happier, calmer and feel more loved. That is huge when you are scared and not feeling well.”
Colleges and universities have increasingly begun to recognize this, allowing pet therapy dogs during finals to help ease the stress. Some colleges, including Florida International University, allow comfort pets in dorm rooms. The University of Florida has two certified therapy dogs at its Counseling and Wellness Center.
At Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Jonathan Banks, an assistant professor in the College of Psychology, is studying the effects petting a dog before a test can have on a student.
Right before mid-terms last semester, about 10 dogs from Canine Assisted Therapy, a nonprofit organization that provides certified pets for hospitals, nursing homes and other purposes, took over a grassy patch near where students congregate. Banks, along with Caitlin McCoy, a biology major in an independent study program, brought together 56 students as part of the study, which measured a student’s anxiety, perceived stress and sustained attention.
Banks said the 29 students who interacted with the dogs for 10 minutes had lower levels of anxiety, perceived stress and sustained attention.
“We know that pets are used for a variety of purposes but we wanted to see whether having them on campus really helped,” he said. “This is a good sign.”
Jennifer Minogue, 19, was all smiles as she spent several minutes petting Schooner, a golden retriever. Minogue, who had been studying nonstop for her four exams, said the break was “definitely needed.”
“It’s a really good stress reliever,” said the Nova Southeastern sophomore, who is majoring in communications and psychology. “Instead of studying, all you are thinking about is having fun.”
Shannon Perez, a freshman from Wellington, said she is not allowed to have a pet on the NSU campus so play time with a dog helps her relax.
“I am not thinking about my tests right now,” she said.
Kent State University professor Kathy Adamle said she began the first pet therapy program on a university campus in the U.S. when she rolled out The Dogs on Campus™ Pet Therapy Program© at the Ohio university in 2004. She had noticed how students always commented on her dogs as she walked them on the school grounds.
“I could not get 50 feet without someone asking if they could pet my dog,” she said. As a researcher she said she began to wonder why.
She said she was met with skepticism from the university when she proposed studying the effects that dogs have on students. After some convincing, she was allowed to do a pilot study.
The program has since grown; Adamle said more than 100,000 students have attended pet-therapy sessions at schools across the country. After other universities heard about her program, they reached out to her for advice about starting their own. Now, more than 250 colleges have some type of pet therapy program, she said.
“Dogs are nonjudgmental,” Adamle said. “Sometimes that’s what a student needs.”
Sompa Adhya-Taylor, director of counseling services for Johnson & Wales, said “pets can help with depression and anxiety.”
For Crystal Jacques, having an on-campus, pet-friendly option made her decision to attend the culinary school in North Miami much easier. Jacques, 29, who was in the Navy for eight years before enrolling at Johnson & Wales, said she and her dog, Oliver, were a package deal. She said she treats Oliver like a child and couldn’t imagine being without him.
“Having housing where I could have him just made it so much easier,” said Jacques, who is majoring in hospitality and tourism. In a lot of the schools she considered, she would have had to live off-campus.
For Nackenson, taking care of Peanut has become routine. She sits in her gated corner of his dorm room as he studies to become a chef.
While he has a busy schedule, he always makes time for some Peanut snuggles.
“It’s unconditional love,” he said.