Eyes get wide, voice pitches rise and feet stop in their tracks. There’s only one thing that makes college students — and even instructors — act in this way: dogs on campus.

Students at Central Lakes College reacted in exactly that way Monday, March 2, when they caught sight of Chance, Goldie and Jet, three therapy dogs sent to make the day a little less stressful.

All three dogs and their owners are certified through Alliance of Therapy Dogs in Baxter. CLC counselor Suzie Karsnia invited them to campus as part of a new program where therapy dogs will be on hand to visit with students once a month at both the Brainerd and Staples campuses.

Karsnia said therapy animals have become a trend of sorts in higher education, especially with students who may have animals at home they’re missing or who just need a simple way to destress and lessen their anxiety.

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“College can be a very stressful time in general,” she said, noting she started looking into options for bringing therapy dogs to campus last year.

“I just wanted to get that going because the few times here and there that we’ve brought dogs on campus, students just love it,” she added.

That may even be an understatement.

Excited cries of, “Ooh, puppies!” and “You’re so cute!” rang through the halls of CLC as students and instructors alike stopped to crouch down and pet the gentle therapy dogs. As the pitches of their voices rose, it’s likely their levels of oxytocin did as well.

“It made my day great after a really, really stressful weekend,” student Alexandra Kusztyb said.

Many other students likely felt the same as Kusztyb, as research — including studies from UCLA Health — shows the simple act of petting animals like dogs can increase levels of the mood-elevating hormones oxytocin, serotonin and prolactin. These hormones naturally help a person relax.

“Therapy dogs are intended to bring joy to a person,” therapy dog handler Theresa Mustonen said. “... Their primary purpose is really companionship and just support for people who would like to have a dog to pet to lower their stress level, to interact with and to get to know a little bit.”

Mustonen and Dan Guck own Goldie and Jet, who are 4- and 5-year-old Belgian Tervurens.

“Goldie is a very sweet, gentle dog and she’s kind of a perfect therapy dog because she’s very obedient and very kind and gentle,” Mustonen said.

Jet enjoys going to new places and loves everyone he meets, Guck said.

CLC student Megan Ostendorf owns Chance, a 2-year-old golden retriever who spends a lot of time throughout the year at Nisswa Elementary School working with students who have difficulties reading.

“He lays there and usually just kind of supports them while they’re reading,” Ostendorf said. “We have kids who wouldn’t read at the beginning of the school year, and now they’re starting to finally read and get through some stories.”

As a college student herself, Ostendorf said she enjoys being able to incorporate Chance’s therapy work into the college world as well. Fellow students clearly felt the same way Monday.

“Being a student, I think that it definitely helps with anxiety of everything being so overwhelming,” Pamela Clark said after petting Goldie Monday. “So I think it’s great that there’s some therapy dogs that are here today to try and calm us down a little bit.”

As a past post-secondary high school student at CLC, Lauren McAllister said she always enjoyed when therapy dogs came during finals week.

“It helped so much,” she said. “Just that brief moment of not having any stress and just puppies. … I’m a huge dog person, so anytime I see a dog, I’m happy.”

Karsnia said the monthly therapy dog visits fit in with CLC’s push toward awareness for mental illness and providing on-campus mental health resources for students and staff members.

Goldie and Jet will be at CLC’s Staple campus Wednesday, March 4.



THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.