Friendly canines offer students a study break during exams

December 11, 2014

An organizer behind a special event at the IU School of Medicine recently cited the wisdom of "Peanuts" comic creator Charles M. Schulz: "Happiness is a warm puppy."

Volunteers from the Indiana Canine Assistant Network, along with their canine companions, delivered a welcome study break Dec. 5 to medical students mired in "book, boards and wards" during final exams. ICAN is an Indianapolis-based group that trains and places assistance service dogs with adults and children with disabilities throughout Indiana. The chance to interact with animals has been shown to be an effective -- and fun -- way to provide relief to people coping with stress.

"Medical students have a lot on their plates to learn everything we're required to know," said Kelsey Booth, a second-year medical student and liaison for the IUSM Wellness Committee. "In the long term, this will benefit our future patients; but in the short term, it can be very stressful and overwhelming.  A study break with a dog is wonderful because dogs are happy just with your simple presence -- and maybe a belly scratch."

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The event at the Walter J. Daly Student Center was co-hosted by the IUSM Wellness Committee, the IUSM Children and Adults With Disabilities Student Interest Group and the IUSM Creative Art Therapy Student Interest Group.

"I remember during my first finals round last (school) year going to the ICAN event," Booth said. Her first experience with the volunteers and animals of ICAN came during the group's first event on campus at the end of the spring 2014 semester. "I was so stressed out and tired, but those dogs were just so happy and calm; it was contagious. When I joined the school’s wellness committee this year, I knew this was one of the projects I just had to help keep going."

This semester's event featured three friendly canines: 1-year-old Osiris and 4-month-old puppies Jewel and Cojack. IUSM students spent time playing with and petting the dogs, touching noses, rolling on the floor and holding the puppies on their laps. Some only stayed a few minutes; many spent 30 minutes or longer.

"I'm definitely a dog person," said Audrey Hessong, a second-year medical student at the IU School of Medicine who paid a special visit to the student center en route to the library to spend time with the dogs. "They're a great stress reliever."

Eric Hawley, a second-year medical student who also took part in the spring semester event, said he particularly enjoyed the event because his current apartment complex doesn't allow pets.

"It's relaxing; it's great to take a break from the library," he said.

In addition to the IUSM Wellness Committee and Student Interest Groups, this semester's event benefitted from support from the IUPUI Office of Student Involvement, which sponsored a light lunch for participants and ICAN volunteers. The study break also featured a "coloring event" and trivia game, with the winner receiving a piece of "doggy art" created by one of the ICAN canines.

The goal of the IUSM Wellness Committee is to promote overall wellness, including physical, social, professional, intellectual, emotional and spiritual health. The committee, which spans most of IUSM's regional campuses, select projects designed to further these goals at each medical education center, as well as aims to plan more online events and project in which everyone can participate. 

The committee also reminds medical students that effective studying requires breaks, and that "two-week cram marathons" are detrimental and dangerous to health. Students are encouraged to make time for exercise, eat "real" food and get enough sleep. Taking time off should be a priority to prevent burnout.

Students who are feeling overwhelmed or depressed are encouraged to contact Suzanne Kunkle, Ph.D., director of counseling at IUSM. Dr. Kunkle sees students and residents at IUPUI Campus Health, Coleman Hall, Suite 100, 1140 W. Michigan St. To schedule an appointment, contact Dr. Kunkle at sukunkle@iupui.edu or 317-274-8214.

Lauren Scheid also contributed reporting to this story.