On Wednesdays we have dogs: Therapy dogs greet students at lunchtime

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MANY PETS — Dogs, students and dog owners interact outside the 100’s building with the dogs, an activity for students to release stress and anxiety.“I decided to start the program because I was already working at Paly and I had this amazing dog,” Beth Martin, the Paly Volunteer Coordinator said. Photo: Rahul Shetty

As the lunch bell rings, students stream into Palo Alto High School’s grassy central quad. Sitting on the side in a shady corner, a small white maltipoo and a gentle old golden retriever sit with their owners, ready to socialize with students. They are part of Palo Alto High School’s Therapy Dog Program.

Every Wednesday at lunch, the program brings certified therapy dogs to the school, giving students the opportunity to interact with the dogs and enjoy the calming effects they provide. The Therapy Dog Program was started by Volunteer Coordinator Beth Martin and her black labrador, Annabelle, in 2012.

“We started out coming to the finals study program and the program expanded to the Wednesday lunchtime sessions,” Martin said.

Mary Ellen Bena, who coordinated evening study sessions during finals week at the time, was the first to invite the dogs to campus, according to Martin.

I definitely think having the therapy dogs around positively impacts mental health. It gives students a moment to stop and experience a moment of warmth and pure joy.”

— Annalise Klenow

“[Bena] thought it would be a nice stress reliever to bring therapy dogs to campus during dinner,” Martin said.

Over the years, the program has attracted dog owners other than Martin to volunteer. According to Paly parent and volunteer Julie Tomz, the program is just as adored by dog owners as it is by students.

“We probably would never talk to [students] except for the fact that the dogs are here, and [they] came over to say hi,” Tomz said. “So it [provides] really fun interactions for us to have.”

According to a 2012 article from Frontiers in Psychology, interacting with therapy dogs has been shown to reduce stress levels and anxiety. Petting a dog has been found to decrease cortisol, a stress hormone, and increase oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and relaxation.

Martin says she has witnessed firsthand the positive impact that the program has on the students.

“Seeing the students’ reactions to the dogs during Wednesday lunch is very gratifying,” Martin said.“Students stop by to pet the dogs and some students come and stay for the entire lunch.”

Students have also expressed their appreciation for the program.

“I see students light up when they see the dogs,” junior Annalise Klenow said. “I think we should be cultivating that type of joy as much as possible around campus.”

The Therapy Dog Program is a unique and valuable part of Paly’s mental wellness, and has helped build a community from scratch.

“I definitely think having the therapy dogs around positively impacts mental health,” Klenow said. “It gives students a moment to stop and experience a moment of warmth and pure joy.”