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Inside the Student Center, students are busy: working quietly on PSETs, discussing classwork in groups, headed towards food and much-needed coffee. But this Thursday, just inside the entrance, they do a double take. A small circle of students, alumni, and owners gathers around five friendly dogs who are wagging their tails and asking for belly rubs. Many students stop in their tracks and come over to join in petting them.
Puppy Lab event coordinator Sophie Blackburn ’19 enjoys organizing the group, which meets every week throughout the school year. “Students will say, ‘I have a dog at home that I miss so much!’ or ‘This is helping me feel less stressed!’” she says. “They say it’s the best part of their day.”
She pauses to straighten a nearby dog’s Puppy Lab bandana: a red and white logo with interlocking beaver and dog. The pug climbs into her lap and she smiles as she scratches his ears.
Puppy Lab started as the brainchild of Stephanie Ku ’14 in 2015. A graduate student at the time, she had just gotten her own dog, Wingnut, and was hoping to connect with other dog owners in a coordinated way. She also enjoyed existing programs like Furry First Fridays with MIT Libraries and access to therapy dogs during finals but wanted to give students access to dogs more consistently.
“For some dogs, it’s limitless how much love they have to give. Could we have dogs show up regularly so people can grow a long-term relationship with them?” she says.
With funding from MindHandHeart, the inaugural Puppy Lab began in May 2016 and has continued with group sessions and trips upon request to individual dorms. Sometimes as many as 50 people showed up to interact with the available dogs. To make the Lab sustainable, Ku’s turned over coordination to current students but maintains a strong connection as an advisor and volunteer owner.
Joice Himawan ’83 ’85 learned about Puppy Lab initially from Facebook and got involved when Ku reached out to her. Himawan has been involved with BARK-Boston Agility Racing K9s for about 10 years, at first as a participant with her dog Max, and then later as a teacher and member of the community. She taught an agility class to all interested dog owners during the 2017 IAP and has worked with other dogs in the Lab, including Ku’s Wingnut.
“People can’t always commit to weeks-long training, so we’re looking into doing individual workshops for future IAPs,” Himawan says.
She’s stayed part of the Puppy Lab, and she volunteers with her dogs whenever she can. “I wish I’d had this as an undergrad! As an alum, Puppy Lab is a great way for me to stay in touch with and give back to MIT,” she says. “I can always give my time.”
Puppy Lab is open to all members of the MIT community, including alumni.