The case against puppies

Dogs are great, but a poodle won’t tutor you in French

(Photo: Beverly & Pack on Flickr)

I’ve been trying to figure out what it is exactly that bugs me about this trend towards creating puppy rooms at Canadian universities. It’s not that I dislike dogs. I like dogs.  I had a dog growing up. And who doesn’t like puppies?

If you haven’t been following university news lately, the gist is this: universities have taken to setting up special rooms with friendly dogs as a way to help students cope with stress, especially around exam time. The idea has been around for a while, but Dalhousie University’s new Puppy Room got picked up by the national and international media and suddenly everybody and his dog has one.

But like I say, there’s something about this cuddly craze that isn’t sitting well with me.

Part of it might be that it feels a bit like treating university students like children. You’re upset? Don’t cry! We’ll get you a puppy! Part of it might be that the whole thing has a distinct bandwagon feel about it: they have a puppy room, so we need a puppy room, too! Part of it is certainly that I wish most of my students were more worried about their work – they might do more of it if they were.

But it’s not just that. There’s something deeper. I think it’s what it says about the whole idea of stress at universities.

I was a university student for many years, so I know a bit about academic stress. I felt it. And as a professor, I see sometimes see students who are stressed.  Now, of course there are people with genuine, serious, psychological problems who need medical attention, but when it comes to academic stress,  there is really one big cause. Students have more work than they feel they can handle.

Why? In some cases it’s simply because they are in a tough course of study and it just has to be that hard. More often, the student has come to university unprepared. In other cases, the student has put off work during the term and now he’s paying the price. I’ve done it myself. But when the chickens come home to roost, our first reaction should not be going to the dogs.

In my experience there is only one sure-fire cure when you are stressed because of  a lot of work.

Work.

And getting your mind off of books for a while is not work. It’s the opposite of work.

Dogs are great. But a friendly Dachshund isn’t going to write your paper on German imperialism. And a poodle won’t tutor you in French. A million puppies typing on a million keyboards won’t write your lab report or help you study for your economics final. In fact, while playing fetch with Rex might be pleasant in the short term, after the dog days of the puppy room are over, you’ll have even less time to study Latin than before.

Don’t get me wrong. If you want to pop into the puppy room for ten minutes before your exam, knock yourself out. Nevertheless, academic stress should not be treated like just another cold: everyone gets it and there’s no cure. If we mistakenly look at it that way, we ignore the factors that are making students stressed in the first place. In other words, if we really want to help students with stress, we should be doing more to encourage high schools to get them ready for university before they get here. And we should be doing more to teach them what hard work really looks like.

Because, I’ll tell you this about hard work: it doesn’t look like a room full of puppies.




Browse

The case against puppies

  1. Pettigrew is fundamentally flawed in his indictment of stress puppies. Let’s break it down point by point.

    “Part of it might be that it feels a bit like treating university students like children. You’re upset? Don’t cry! We’ll get you a puppy!”

    Well, that would be the case, except that many of these initiatives come from the student governments. Unless students are trying to be condescending to themselves, this point falls. Puppies are something the students want, not something forced upon them by the administration.

    “Part of it might be that the whole thing has a distinct bandwagon feel about it: they have a puppy room, so we need a puppy room, too!”

    Oh horrors! A good idea is spreading! Regardless of why puppies on campus happen, if they’re a good thing for students, let them happen.

    “Part of it is certainly that I wish most of my students were more worried about their work – they might do more of it if they were.”

    Heads up: The students who get stressed about schoolwork are the ones who actually care enough to want to do it. The ones who aren’t doing their work are the ones who don’t care, and as a result, don’t get stressed, and don’t need or want the stress puppies. If your students don’t care about your class, Pettigrew, it speaks to a very different set of problems.

    At this point we come to Pettigrew’s analysis of stress at universities, which is really the crux of his case, and it lies on three unsound assumptions:

    1. Puppies detract from hard work. Wrong. Regardless of how students choose to divide their time between puppies and studying, the exams still exist and require hard work to be passed, a lesson that any slacking student will learn the same way they always have – by experience.

    2. Modern students are lacking in work ethic. Incorrect. Pettigrew makes the (tenuous) links that stress comes from too much work to handle, and that students aren’t willing to put in that work. While work ethic is difficult to quantify, I would invite Pettigrew to tour the libraries of any major Canadian university this week and report on whether or not the students look like they’re working hard.

    3. Students’ stress is a result of having more work than they can handle. I don’t think so. Stress at exam times comes from a variety of factors including, but not limited to: parental pressure to do well on exams, personal pressure to better oneself, social pressure to do more than just study, financial pressure from massive debt and low income, and a yet-to-develop prefrontal cortex that amplifies all this stress many times over.

    “Nevertheless, academic stress should not be treated like just another cold: everyone gets it and there’s no cure. If we mistakenly look at it that way, we ignore the factors that are making students stressed in the first place.”

    True. There are a lot of factors that cause stress that can’t be ignored. Unfortunately, when commentators immediately deride students for being stressed because they’re “clearly not working hard enough”, any subtleties are necessarily ignored, issues are simplified down to fit in 1000 words or less and nothing gets done.

    There are a lot of problems with Universities these days, absurd tuition, the lowered value of an undergrad degree, and under-qualified faculty among them, but puppies are not on that list. Let’s solve the real issues before making up new ones.

    • “I would invite Pettigrew to tour the libraries of any major Canadian university this week and report on whether or not the students look like they’re working hard.”

      Isn’t that exactly the problem? Prof Pettigrew is saying that students didn’t work during the term and now it’s catching up to them. If they try to do a term’s work in a week, no wonder they are stressed. You might think the premise is wrong, but you have given evidence for it, not against it.

    • I am going to break your argument down point by point.

      ‘Well, that would be the case, except that many of these initiatives come from the student governments. Unless students are trying to be condescending to themselves, this point falls. Puppies are something the students want, not something forced upon them by the administration.’

      Okay well Student Unions in of themselves are usually very elite and condescending (RE: AMS at Queen’s University) and tend to waste our student fees. Either way, using a puppy room does not reflect the real issues (which I will get to)

      “Oh horrors! A good idea is spreading! Regardless of why puppies on campus happen, if they’re a good thing for students, let them happen.”

      You assume its a good idea without substantiating your claim.

      ‘Heads up: The students who get stressed about schoolwork are the ones who actually care enough to want to do it. The ones who aren’t doing their work are the ones who don’t care, and as a result, don’t get stressed, and don’t need or want the stress puppies. If your students don’t care about your class, Pettigrew, it speaks to a very different set of problems.’

      Again, people need to learn to cope. IBM, NASA, Deloitte, KGMP etc etc etc won’t give you puppy rooms. University puts you into a nice little bubble and we as students expect to be accomodated. If you can’t handle it, go find something else to do with your life. Plain and simple.

      1. Puppies do detract from work, but regardless whether or not they do, they don’t address the issues.
      2. Modern work ethic is lacking. In my Econ 110 class we can now do assignments (a total of 3 per semester worth 20% of each semester) can be split between four people so 1 person can do 6 questions for 20% of their final mark (6 over the semester for on course).
      3. I agree stress comes from a variety of places, including more work than you can handle, pressures etc etc.

      So how do we fix this? Firstly, high school has to actually teach kids about the real world. In high school you are coddled the whole way through. University is starting to do the exact same thing. Most of the time the work loads aren’t even that bad (Engineers at Queen’s have about 40 hours of work a week + classes+assignments) and I don’t see any of them bitching, and they have the right to. A lot of these ArtSci students who do a total of 5 papers a semester for 5 courses plus exams need to realize, the work they do isn’t that hard.

  2. This article is . . . a bit ridiculous. What makes you think that allowing a few dogs to spend some time on campus with students is treating them like children, or will make students forget the realities of “hard work”?

    I mean, there are many adult professionals — including professors — who own dogs. I would imagine that when they’re feeling a little worn out and stressed from their work, they take a break and go hang out with their pets for a while. It’s just a nice thing to do; it helps recharge their batteries so they feel refreshed and focused when they return to the task at hand. Why should students be any different?Nonstop cramming and/or writing isn’t good for anyone, even in the case of students who are fully prepared for university and are doing well in their courses. These “puppy rooms” are simply a way for students to bond with some animals for a few minutes before getting on with their day. No, of course it doesn’t address the serious issue of underprepared students coming to university . . . but then again, it’s not supposed to. It’s just a room . . . full of dogs . . . to make people happy. Something tells me that you are reading waaaaaay too much into this.

    And really, Dr. Pettigrew, are there any innovations on university campus of which you DO approve? Because it seems to me that most of your articles are full of complaints about everything and anything. Lighten up, it’s the holiday season! Go hug a puppy.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *