Checking Out Monty: Yale Law Students Can Reduce Stress With Therapy Dog

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At the Yale Law Library circulation desk, students have been signing up this week to check out Monty, a "certified library therapy dog," for 30-minute sessions of unconditional, stress-busting puppy love.

"The interest in available slots has been high," said Jan Conroy, a spokeswoman for Yale Law School, on Wednesday, the third day of sign-ups.

Beginning Monday, students at the nation's top-ranked law school, a Gothic complex that takes up one city block within Yale University's New Haven, Conn., campus, will be able to spend time (and maybe lower their blood pressure) with the 21-pound brown border terrier mix. In a March 10 memo, law librarian Blair Kauffman expressed hope that the free, three-day pilot pet therapy program would be "a positive addition to current services offered by the library."

"It is well documented that visits from therapy dogs have resulted in increased happiness, calmness and overall emotional well-being," Kauffman wrote in the memo, which directed students to the website of Therapy Dogs International (motto: Paws Awhile for Love), a non-profit organization offering pet therapy in schools, hospitals, nursing homes and disaster recovery sites.

Kauffman told students that he welcomed their feedback "to help us decide if this will be a permanent on-going program available during stressful periods of the semester, for example during examinations."

Therapy dogs have been introduced to help students at Tufts University in Massachusetts, Oberlin College in Ohio and UC San Diego in California survive the pressures of midterms and finals.

The idea of offering sessions with a professionally trained therapy dog came up last September in internal law school discussions with Monty's owner, librarian Julian Aiken. Somehow, word of those discussions got out and landed in the legal blog, "Above the Law," which posted a humorous law library catalog listing for Monty, whose full name is General Montgomery. It said Monty circulates for 30-minute periods.

Despite the gag listing, administrative interest in the program was real.

For now, everyone is waiting to see how next week's experimental Monday with Monty (and Tuesday and Wednesday) works out.

Yale Stress Center Director Welcomes Law School's Initiative

The director of the Yale Stress Center, who was not involved in creating the program, welcomed it enthusiastically.

"It's really great that the Yale Law School is recognizing the need for addressing stress in the students, because students ... need to learn ways of handling it and need help at different points in the semester," said Rajita Sinha, a psychologist and professor of psychiatry and child study at the Yale School of Medicine. "I'm glad to hear actually that they're doing something about it."

Sinha said there was recent evidence in medical literature "that dogs and pets actually do decrease stress," much as social support does. Human beings, inherently social creatures, get that benefit "through touch, through having another living creature near us."

However, Sinha noted that "not everybody is a dog person, or pet person" and that, ideally, the Yale Law School might want to think about other ways to help its students get through feelings of being overwhelmed, which can easily strike a Yalie during a long, gray, snowy Connecticut winter. The Stress Center's website offers tips for handling stress, as well as a handy interactive guide to stress symptoms throughout the body.

Because stress generally doesn't carry the stigma sometimes associated with a diagnosis like depression, Sinha thought stressed students would be more willing to sign up for a half-hour with a therapy dog than seek a mental health evaluation. However, she said that placing the sign-up list in a very visible spot like the circulation desk "certainly could or should give one pause to at least consider all the ramifications" of making the sign-up process so public.

Yale, which began issuing law degrees in 1843, long has been considered an academic pressure-cooker. Law school admissions standards are exceedingly high; the school accepts just 6.7 percent of applicants. Those fortunate enough to get one of about 200 places in the first-year class face annual tuition of $48,500, although 80 percent of them get financial aid based on need.

On top of that, there's the pressure of expectations associated with a Yale law degree. Prominent Yale Law alumni include three sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices: Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas; two former presidents: Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford; a current governor: Jerry Brown of California; and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Visits With Monty Will Be in Non-Public Space

Requirements for a therapy dog are rigorous, too. They include "an outstanding temperament," as well as tolerance of other animals, according to the TDI website.

Although Monty is hypoallergenic, Kauffman wrote that the dog's therapy visits would be "confined to a designated non-public space in the library to eliminate potential adverse reactions from any library user who might have dog-related concerns."

Leave it to a law school at a university whose mascot is a bulldog named Handsome Dan, to protect itself from potential complaints (or legal action) from students, faculty and staff.