“Unleashing Happiness” a monthly blog by Karen Lee Stevens

Founder and Director of Wellness Programs, Karen Lee Stevens shares her insights as she explores regular topics and experiences through the lens of mental health, wellness and the human-animal bond.

Cold Noses, Warm Hearts

BLOG POST #10 – Cold Noses, Warm Hearts

June 10, 2024

by KAREN LEE STEVENS

Let’s be honest, suggesting breathing exercises to students to help them calm down isn’t exactly going to win you any gold stars — especially with older kids who think they are “too cool for school.” It’s more likely to be met with the classic teenage eye roll and exasperated head tilt that parents and teachers know all too well.

Teenagers leaning against a wall.

So, you can imagine my surprise when a school counselor recently shared a gem of a conversation with me. Apparently, when some stressed out 5th graders shuffled in for help with an emotional upset, she offered the usual breathing techniques for calming down. The response? A chorus of, “We already learned how to breathe like that with the dogs!”

I knew it! They’ve been paying attention to me all along. Or, more accurately: they’ve been paying attention to our therapy dogs!

Inhale, Exhale
Allow me to explain. For years, I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative impact of our therapy dogs on student well-being. As a Mindfulness Instructor, I bring a therapy dog to every class and I’ve seen the way these cuddly canines can calm anxious minds, soothe frayed nerves, and provide a sense of comfort and security to students facing life’s daily challenges — even the kids who think that practicing mindfulness is b-o-r-i-n-g (cue another round of eye rolls and synchronized head tilts). Here’s the thing: kids are way more receptive to learning when a darling dog is involved. Think about it. Would you rather practice deep breathing with an adult you barely know or with a golden retriever who’s patiently waiting for a tummy rub? Case closed.
Increase Oxytocin, Decrease Cortisol
But how exactly do these canine calm-inducers work their magic? It’s a combination of science and pure adorableness. Studies show that interacting with dogs lowers stress hormones like cortisol and increases feel-good chemicals like oxytocin. Students may walk into their first period class feeling like a deflated balloon. Then, a furry ray of sunshine greets them with a wagging tail and big, soulful eyes. Suddenly, worries seem a little less overwhelming and they actually start to engage with their teacher and fellow students.

The benefits extend beyond the individual student. Therapy dogs can create a more positive and welcoming environment for the entire school community. A grumpy teacher might find themselves cracking a smile at the sight of a playful pup. A shy student might feel more comfortable raising their hand to answer a question when a dog is facilitating the interaction. It’s a win-win situation, with a healthy dose of tail wags and the ubiquitous trail of dog fur thrown in for good measure.

Dog sniffing flowers

But the real secret sauce lies in the way therapy dogs model mindfulness techniques themselves. Think about it: have you ever watched a dog calmly observe the world around them? They sniff with purpose, take slow, deliberate breaths, and focus entirely on the task at hand (which, let’s be honest, is often the pursuit of a particularly interesting squirrel). This inherent calmness is contagious, and students subconsciously pick up on the dog’s peaceful presence.

Now, therapy dogs aren’t miracle workers. They can’t solve all of a student’s problems with a wag of the tail. However, they can provide a safe space for students to learn and practice calming techniques in a non-judgmental environment. Suddenly, those deep breathing exercises the counselor suggested don’t seem so silly anymore. Instead, they become a tool for managing stress, just like the way they see the dogs manage theirs naturally.

Slow down, hug a dog
So, the next time you hear a child expertly practicing deep breathing, don’t be surprised if a therapy dog is the secret instructor. Who knows, maybe it’s a new trend in mindfulness resources: a therapy dog meditation app! We can call it “Calm Canines” or “Doga Downtime” — because who wouldn’t want to learn mindfulness from a four-legged friend with a cold nose and a warm heart?

Just Breathe

Questions or comments? Contact Karen@TherapyDogsSB.org

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