Unique program demonstrates how investing in our relationships with animals can help restore what is often lost in a technology-driven world
She soothes ragged nerves at Boynton Health Services on the Minneapolis campus. She calms pre-finals anxiety and provides a well-deserved study break at the Magrath Library in St. Paul. She cultivates a fanatical following on Twitter.
Woodstock, along with several canine, feline, and even lagomorphic friends, is a part of the Animal-Assisted Interactions (AAI) program at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which offers therapeutic human-animal connections.
AAI is a part of a larger movement, Nature-Based Therapeutics (NBT), which focuses on the healing power of nature through interactions with plants, animals, and natural landscapes, and will be the focus of the upcoming LearningLife Saturday Morning Seminar, Natural Connections: Understanding Our Relationships with Animals. (Feb. 22).
"Many people find spending time with animals a healing and important part of their day," says Natural Connections instructor Tanya Bailey, who's trained with Woodstock since 2006. "AAI services are a logical component in mental health and well-being resources."
According to Bailey, research indicates animal interaction can have a range of positive effects on people, including decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels. "Think about how your environment affects your overall well-being. How do you feel at the end of every day?"
She continues, "Consider when the last time you took a long walk or hike along a nature trail was or how many hours you've gone without cell phones, TV, or a computer, and instead talked to the person next to you, strolled through your neighborhood, pet a dog in a park, or noticed the bird life in your surroundings?
"Animals relax the human brain and body, causing us to experience the world in a supportive, nurturing light and make more grounded decisions."
The AAI team has tested that idea with a new program at the University, PAWS (Pet Away Worry and Stress), which brings registered therapy animal teams--Woodstock, among them--to campus once a week for students and the general public to interact with.
"Many schools--the U of M included--feature animals on campus during high-stress times, like finals week," says Bailey. But, as far as she knows, the PAWS program is breaking new ground by doing it on a regular basis. "Students do better when they manage stress, and this is an effective way for them to do that. It gives them a connection that they may be missing when they have to leave their own pets at home, or can't have pets because they live in housing that doesn't allow it."
And, of course, the human-animal bond goes beyond the young adult years, as participants in the Saturday Morning Seminar will discover. "Animals can reach people in a way other human beings can't," Bailey says.
Whether that's the traditional therapy dog, or horses, or the more rare therapy cats, rabbits, and yes, even a Silkie chicken like Woodstock (who, by the way, has her own Twitter account, @TherapyChicken), the animals can help people take a moment to slow down, relax, and make a connection to nature they might otherwise miss in their busy day. Says Bailey, "Animals and nature help to break down barriers and smooth paths for human engagement. They remind us we are human be-ings, not necessarily human do-ings, and that the awe we experience when we rest in nature is one of the most fundamental and transformative needs vital for our species' health, well-being, and survival."
To learn more about Nature-Based Therapeutics or find out how to meet Bailey and Woodstock in person, register for the February 22 seminar or visit Natural Connections: Understanding Our Relationships with Animals.
More Scenes From a PAWS Visit!