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MIT Puppy Lab to open during National Mental Health Awareness Month

Stephanie Ku’s Puppy Lab, a proposal funded by the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund, opens its doors during the two weeks before and during finals.
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Puppy Lab founder Stephanie Ku (left) poses with Wingnut and Puppy Lab team-in-training Ann Peters of MIT Lincoln Lab and Pythagoras.
Puppy Lab founder Stephanie Ku (left) poses with Wingnut and Puppy Lab team-in-training Ann Peters of MIT Lincoln Lab and Pythagoras.
Photo: Barbara Lipohar Staples
Image: Stephanie Ku/MIT Puppy Lab

The MIT Puppy Lab is a bit warmer and fuzzier than most labs on campus, but it is no less innovative. As a dog owner and graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, Stephanie Ku ’14 feels that time spent in friendly canine company can lead to spontaneous smiles, stress-relieving laughter, and, for many people, feelings of calm and reduced anxiety.

This past fall, Ku formalized her hypothesis, that animal interaction could help de-stress MIT students, faculty, and staff, in a proposal to the MindHandHeart Innovation Fund, which included establishing a regular campus space for puppy petting and a plan for project-evaluation via correspondence with participants. After receiving the grant, Ku wasted no time in starting up, arranging on-campus sessions for dog-owning members of the MIT community to obtain training and certification through Dog B.O.N.E.S Therapy Dogs. “When I put out the call for training sessions, I was overwhelmed by the response,” says Ku, who has compiled a growing wait list for owners not able to talk the first series. “So many owners are excited to share their furry best friends with others, and students cannot wait to meet them. I hope that this therapy dog model will catalyze the development of meaningful relationships between humans and canines alike.” All of these logistics Ku has been balancing on top of her graduate research and course work.

A key component of her Puppy Lab proposal was a consistent and central location on campus in which to hold the visit sessions at regularly scheduled times. For that, Ku worked with Ashley Kennedy, of the MindHandHeart Initiative Core Team, and Norman Magnuson, MIT’s manager of Grounds Services, to secure the Lobby 10 Community Lounge, the glassed-in room with green lounge chairs, as the ideal location. With an initial round of prospective team training now complete, Ku has announced visit sessions for the Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons (3-5 p.m.) of May 10, 11, 17, and 18.

And Puppy Lab isn’t the only opportunity to de-stress with therapy dogs this May. There is Furry First Friday, May 6, from 2 to 4 p.m., in the Hayden Library and a Cookies with Canines session Thursday, May 12, from 2:30 to 3 p.m. in Hayden, hosted by MIT Libraries; and a Yappy Hour on May 11 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., in the MIT Sloan Office of Student Life (Room E52-101).

The opening of Puppy Lab is well timed, not only with final exams, but with National Mental Health Awareness Month, a month observed by mental health and public health organizations to focus attention on the wide spectrum of mental health needs and the types of support available. As a way to connect the dots, MIT's MindHandHeart Initiative compiled over 50 of MIT’s stress-relieving events into one #MentalHealthMay calendar. “We are focusing on stress-relief,” said Maryanne Kirkbride, the initiative’s executive administrator, “in part because May is a crowded and pressured time of year, with final exams and many end-of-year events. The MindHandHeart Initiative exists to support and enhance the many services already thriving and growing at MIT. We are helping to do the gardening for the thousand flowers already blooming here.”

May at MIT features meditation and mindfulness opportunities, wellness days, breakfasts during finals week, and expanded walk-in hours at Student Support Services (S-Cubed) in Room 5-105. In addition, Active Minds @MIT, the student-run chapter of a national mental health advocacy group, is offering a “Speak Your Mind” dinner and discussion with student speakers sharing stories of mental health at MIT, and Professor Daniel Jackson, the photographer behind the "Portraits of Resilience Project" published weekly in The Tech, serving as keynote speaker. The event takes place May 11 at 5 p.m. in the Student Center (Building W20), Room 407. The dinner is free and open to the MIT community, but RSVP is requested at the event page. While MIT celebrates a momentous move to Cambridge this month, as well as Commencement and other “great strides,” students, staff, and faculty are reaching out to support one another’s mental health and well-being, and that stride, too, will have its own lasting impacts.

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