“The Perfect Remedy”: Mental Health Dogs Promote Student Well-being
Whether you are a St Andrews student or resident, perhaps you’ve seen the pack of pooches walking with some student friends along East Sands, or have caught a glimpse of the appropriately named ‘cuddle sessions’ that take place in the Student Union. Either way, the most adorable society on campus is a popular one for good reason: they are the ‘Dog Walking Society’.
The university environment can undoubtedly be a stressful one, specifically as deadline season looms. For many already missing K9 accomplices at home during term time, an hour or two with a dog is the perfect remedy for a stressful week.
It is no secret that the pups have become a welfare tool that St Andrews community members have proudly picked up (including by your correspondent). When the current President of the Dog Walking Society, third-year student Kennedy Herron, invited me to come along to one of the cuddling sessions, I gladly accepted.
Upon walking into Sandy’s bar for the session, I was filled with an immediate sense of comfort. Smiling students sat cross legged whilst a gaggle of tail-wagging furry friends made their way between them, awaiting admiration and pats. I was quickl;y introduced to Mochi, an excitable young spaniel demanding belly rubs immediately. It is here, amid belly rubs and incessant cute-ness, that it becomes easy to see how this society has achieved its popularity.
Sitting down with Herron after spending some time in the session, she explains to me that, while they hold regular cuddling sessions on Tuesday afternoons, there are also often collaborations with societies who reach out to the group, as had happened that day (where the meeting was held in conjunction with the Italian Society).
Herron says that the society really took hold after the pandemic, when students were isolated and away from pets at home. The club began by pairing up students with local dogs for individual walks, helping out local residents with pet care whilst allowing students to spend time outdoors with a new furry friend. Since then, the group has grown and accumulated into the large group walks and cuddle sessions we see today (post social distancing).
The society is positive for town and gown relations, Herron says. Students get to know and love the animals they walk, while the residents get the day off and free doggie-day-care. Residents and students alike can also get to know each other on walks and bond over mutual K9 interests.
Herron remarks on the incredible effect that the dogs have on students every week. “Honestly every single time I’m at a cuddling event, even if it’s not being directly said to me, I overhear students saying how much they needed this and how it has completely made their day, it’s really rewarding to hear that”, she says.
Group walks, which the society hosts weekly on the town’s beaches, are great for wellbeing too, she says.
Although many of us may wish it, dogs cannot erase every mental struggle a student is facing. The relief they provide, however –– temporary as it may be –– is invaluable. Herron says that students who have used the service comment on how much easier it can be to approach the society than going to seek help directly from the university. “A lot of times people don’t want to talk about it, they just need an hour of distraction. Dogs are the perfect distraction”, she says.
Herron notes how valued the regular dogs are, most specifically those belonging to local resident Rodd Stoddart, who frequents the library, the medical school building, and other spots around town with his two service collies, Clova and Mia. After seeing Stoddart’s pooches, who are donned in jackets informing passerbys that they are there for emotional support, I emailed library services to find out more about them.
“The person who brings the emotional support dogs operates separately from the Library, and although we are keen to link up with them so we can ensure students are aware when they are on site, we don't currently have contact details”, the library team replied in response. Having assumed the dogs were a university provided resource, I was surprised to then realise that Stoddart takes it upon himself to stand outside with the dogs in the tempramental Scottish weather. He does it –– despite not having to –– just to improve students' day.
His dogs are therapy trained service dogs, favourites of the dog walking society, and featured on the society Instagram. They are also constantly on call as a welfare resource for students. If a student is struggling, Stoddart and his pooches are often called out. Herron and the team at Dog Walking Society are trying to make him more well-advertised through student services.
All of Stoddart’s work is voluntary, hoping to improve student welfare because of the incredible services his dogs are able to provide. He even now has a permanent visitor parking pass, thanks to Herron. He can park anywhere on university property, allowing him to easily access all of his call outs –– whether further out of town or in student halls. It’s particularly helpful to have him as an option 24/7, Herron tells me, because a lot of people struggle at night.
There is an unwavering sincerity in how Herron speaks about Stoddart and his contributions to the community. It is clear how much she values his addition to both the town and the society. A sincerity that is clearly returned, as I speak to Stoddart and he tells me that working with Herron and the society is both an absolute pleasure and an honour. He tells me that Clova is an operational search dog and life field member, whilst the younger pup Mia is training for search and rescue. Together, the three of them –– when not helping out at a local care home or being part of search and rescue teams –– all come along to the Dog Walking Society events, as well as going the extra mile to consistently make sure anyone who needs their services, young or old, can access them.
Stoddart has been in search and rescue for over 46 years, 42 of which have been mountain rescue. Now, however, he sticks to the lowlands, with his loyal hounds an essential part of his new missions. Over the pandemic, he began to volunteer at Argyle court, which houses approximately 70 elderly people. To this day, he does shopping for the residents and –– of course –– graces them with visits from Clova and Mia.
Often, we love dogs because they remind us of home. For many students, home is thousands of miles away. Having the option to connect with animals and fill a dog-shaped hole in their hearts during term time can make the transition from living at home to university much easier. Having left home at sixteen to join the RAF, Stoddart understands how hard it can be to leave home and miss family pets, especially with the added pressure of work and exams. “I have always been about using my life experiences to help the young and elderly people, and have a listening ear”, he says.
It is important now more than ever to make the larger student body aware of these services, both by the society and by Stoddart individually. He describes the impact he’s seen in students as incredible, remarking that Clova and Mia are loved by all who meet them. It is not difficult to understand why; the dogs are incredibly intelligent and have an intrinsically calming nature. “The students have taught me a lot and we have respect for each other. It has definitely made a difference as my dogs are on call 24/7”, he says.
Herron and the team want students to know they are all welcome at the sessions. Standard memberships for Dog Walk Soc are just £5, which include group walks and cuddle sessions. Premium memberships – at £10 – allow individuals to be added to a WhatsApp group of local dogs they can pair with on walks. sDog pairing forms are available to make sure everyone is suited to the perfect pooch for them.
The simplicity of sitting for an hour or two with man’s best friend can instil an element of peace and comfort that can be hard to find elsewhere at the height of the semester. It is hard not to be in awe of Herron, her team, and Stobbart, who selflessly devote their time to helping make things just that bit easier for people in this town, not bound by age, but by a shared love of dogs.
For those interested in getting involved, or meeting the animals, check out the society’s Instagram (@dogwalk_standrews) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Stoddart and his girls can be found at the cuddling sessions and around town.
Photo: Diasy Fraser