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The Penn vet school brings therapy dogs to the underground of Rodin. Credit: Aaron Campbell , Aaron Campbell

A School of Veterinarian Medicine study is examining exactly how much ‘love’ is involved in ‘puppy love.’

During reading days every year, Rodin College House hosts “Destress with Dogs,” an event where students can play with therapy dogs, certified dogs with people-friendly temperaments. The idea is that petting animals helps people reduce stress.

Virginia Tech veterinarian Zenithson Ng, however, wants to know how these petting sessions might affect the dogs.

For his master’s project, Ng is collaborating with Penn Vet professor and Director of Penn Vet Working Dog Center Cindy Otto to research whether dogs benefit as much as humans do from those therapeutic sessions.

Yesterday in the Rodin Underground, Ng and his volunteers brought eight therapy dogs and their owners to participate in a study Ng hopes will answer his questions.

Ng chose to work at Penn because of Otto’s research interests and Penn’s established VETPETS program, which provides therapy dogs for events on campus and around Philadelphia.

“We knew that there [were] a lot of dogs there that we could use,” Ng said. “This was something I didn’t have to start from scratch.”

For the first and last 30 minutes, the dogs and their owners spent time walking outside. For the hour in between, volunteer students pet each dog for five-minute sessions.

Ng collected saliva samples every 30 minutes to test cortisol levels which, along with behavioral analyses and chronic stress tests, is how Ng will measure the dogs’ stress levels.

Ng wanted to see if cortisol levels rise while the dogs are pet, a symptom of increased stress. If levels do rise, Ng would like to know if it is because of the human-animal interaction, the environment or a combination of the two. Ng’s hypothesis is that cortisol levels are affected by both factors.

While similar studies have been conducted in the past, Ng said they produced limited information because the experiments’ variables were so hard to control.

This study is the first of its kind. Ng and his 40 volunteers from Penn, Temple and Drexel are trying control their experiment as much as possible.

In total, 16 dogs will participate in the study. Rodin’s therapy session was just one of three environments for the study. The other two locations are the owners’ homes and a “neutral” room, where only the dog’s owner will be petting it.

First year Penn Vet student Natalie Boursiquot brought her dog, Dennis, to the study. Dennis, a white dog with brown and black patches, makes appearances at “dog destressers” at Rodin, the Quad and Hillel.

Boursiquot, the vice president of VETPETS, said that while Dennis’ personality does not change at the destressers, he is definitely aware he’s there for a purpose. “When he puts on the bandanna he knows he is working,” she said.

College freshman Kathleen Hoe found out about the study through Circle K, a community service student group that volunteered for the study. Hoe said she signed up because “I guess I just love dogs.”

She pet Dennis and didn’t think he was nervous. “I feel that he was probably used to this … he was really calm. He didn’t seem to respond negatively to some random person’s touch,” Hoe said.

“This is amazing,” said Wharton and Engineering senior Matthew Vogel, Circle K’s Vice President of Membership. “It’s great that we can volunteer just by hanging out with dogs and enjoying our time.”

Some opponents of using dogs for therapeutic purposes believe it is an immoral practice. One argument is that sitting still for a long time while being pet by people isn’t a natural dog activity.

Ng’s goals for the research study is to help set scientific protocols for using therapy dogs. “[It’s] so that we can enhance their ability to do this work … to make sure we’re not burning them out,” he said. Ng wants to make sure people are looking out for the dogs’ welfare, as well.

In addition to this research study, Ng is also in the process of establishing a similar program to VETPETS at Virginia Tech. The data from the $20,000 research study, which was funded by Purina, will take several months to analyze and the study’s results should be published within the next year.

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