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Paws for Mental Health: Dr. Julie Spears

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Two-thirds of American households have a pet, and this number is increasingly higher among millennials and Gen-Zs. Harvard Business Review found that the mere presence of animals in the workplace provides employees comfort, buffers against stress, enhances work engagement, and improves work-life quality. As May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, NextUp has partnered with Purina to create ‘Paws for Mental Health,’ a series of conversations on the incredible impact that pets can have on mental health.

Let’s dive into this series with an interview with Dr. Julie Spears, the Senior Manager of Clinical Trials at Purina, who develops, leads, and manages the portfolio of clinical trials that validate the science behind Purina’s dog and cat foods. Dr. Spears and Graham, her Golden Retriever, completed a 16-week pet therapy certification course with Duo Dogs, a nonprofit that trains and connects dogs to people with specific mental, emotional, or physical needs.

What led you to becoming interested in the impact that pets have on mental health?

I truly believe that pets and people are better together, and the benefits of pet therapy were really demonstrated to me a couple of times last year, fueling my interest in getting involved with my own dog, Graham. My parents lived at an assisted-living facility, and they were always so thrilled to tell me about the pets that came to visit them. You could tell in their voice how much they loved seeing pets and getting to interact with them.

Then, when my husband and I were traveling to visit family over the holidays, the airport had therapy dog teams available for people whose flights were delayed and cancelled. You could see the stress melting off both adults and children when they just sat with the dogs for a couple of minutes.

I was offered a spot in the Duo Touch therapy training program. Purina offers their employees an opportunity to participate in a 16-week course for training their family pets as therapy dogs and gaining their certification through a local service and therapy dog nonprofit in St. Louis called Duo Dogs. In partnership with the Duo Dogs organization, over 30 Purina pet therapy teams have been certified so far. Graham and I started training to be a therapy team in January and were certified in May. Since then, we make 3-4 therapy visits per month to Duo’s partner Touch therapy locations such as hospitals and schools all around the St. Louis area.

How do you think integrating pets into the work environment can enhance the overall wellness of employees, whether they work remotely or in-person?

Every job can be stressful regardless of if you work remotely or in-person – it could be due to preparing for a big meeting, writing reports, or making a presentation. So, it’s important that people understand the role that pets can play in supporting mental health no matter where you are physically working.

Pets can help reduce the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, lessen anxiety, and decrease feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression. These benefits are seen with just a 10-minute cuddle session and last long beyond that interaction. Taking time during the day to play or cuddle with your pet can help your overall wellness!

What specific traits or behaviors in pets do you believe contribute most to their ability to improve a person’s health & wellness?  

There are so many ways that pets that can contribute to improving our health and wellness! Pets provide unconditional love and companionship, and the presence of a pet offers emotional support and helps alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety, leading to improved mental well-being.

Owning a pet can also increase social interaction. Taking pets for walks or visiting dog parks can lead to conversations and connections with other people, fostering a sense of community and support. And regular walks and play can help improve the pet owner’s cardiovascular health, support weight management and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

Finally, caring for a pet requires responsibility and provides a sense of purpose that can give owners a sense of fulfillment, boost self-esteem, and provide a distraction from their own problems or worries.

What is your most cherished memory with Graham?

I don’t know if I can pick just one! My husband and I take Graham (and our other Golden retriever, Conall) to dog-friendly places all around St. Louis – restaurants, breweries, parks, and even baseball and soccer games. Graham is such a sweet and empathetic dog, and I really have loved seeing how he thrives in our therapy visits.

Through the journey and experiences of Dr. Julie Spears and Graham becoming a certified pet therapy team, they’ve witnessed the profound connection between pets and mental health through offering emotional support, reducing stress, fostering social interaction, and promoting physical activity and a sense of purpose.

Their story is just the beginning – stay tuned for more from NextUp’s Paws for Mental Health series, created in partnership with Purina, where you’ll hear individual stories of how pets PAWSitively affect lives, both in and out of work!


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