RICHMOND, Va. -- The director of a Virginia animal shelter that received more than 400 applications for puppy snuggle sessions hopes the concept spreads to other facilities across the country to give people an outlet for "hurt, worry and sadness."
“We have this beautiful litter of Pyrenees puppies,” Richmond Animal Care and Control (RACC) Director Christie Chipps-Peters said. “And when they came into our care, all the staff was like hugging them and kissing them and thinking how great they made us feel. They are like little angel puffy bunnies of goodness.”
Peters said the shelter wanted to spread that good feeling to others.
“The world is a little bit hard right now. We're coming out of two years of COVID, there's a war, all kinds of social unrest,” she said. “It might be great to give other people outside of our world here just a little bit of that goodness.”
The shelter posted on Facebook early the morning of Friday, April 1, offering the puppy snuggle sessions. Peters was overwhelmed by the response.
“I received over 400 emails — and we don't have that many puppies to go around,” Peters said. “So I had the arduous task of going through all of them and selecting the 52 people who came through today.”
How people were chosen for puppy snuggle sessions
Peters said she prioritized the emails in the order in which they were received. First responders and health care professionals as well as people "who recently lost a loved one/suffering from a broken heart/depression/anxiety" went to the top of the list.
“We had some people that were just like, ‘I want my kids to come pet a puppy,’” Peters explained. "Whereas we had others that are like, ‘My daughter was murdered, and I'm having a rough go.’”
Peters said the people with the greatest need received priority, but she admitted it was a tough process that left her in tears.
She said that shelter workers are so often so animal focused that they “sometimes get stuck in that tunnel.”
Still, Peters said reading the applications was cathartic.
“If you have anything wrong with you and think that your day is bad, there was always someone that has a worse day than you,” Peters said. “So perspective is an interesting thing.”
Peters was hopeful the experience lifted people's spirits.
“There's so much hurt and worry, and sadness right now that people are feeling and that they don't sometimes have an outlet for,” Peters said. “So we were very surprised to be inundated with such a huge number of people that were like, ‘I would love nothing more than to sit in a room with a fluffy puppy to make everything better.’”
Dogs remind us how to be present, woman says
Petra, a pediatric psych nurse, and her father, a retired FBI agent who drove down from Fairfax for the session, said she jumped at the chance to "refill her emotion cup with some self-care by petting puppies."
“When I saw that Richmond Animal Care and Control had the opportunity to get some free pet therapy, I wrote the email as fast as I could,” she recalled.
Petra said animals, like the Pyrenees puppies she got to cuddle and play with, can lower stress levels.
"It has been shown that petting animals and being close to them [can] reduce the stress hormone chemicals and stuff that you have in your body. VCU actually has dogs on call that they do take to see patients and healthcare workers," she said. "There are like scientific studies that have shown the benefits of pet therapy for people, so it's just a wonderful thing."
PHOTO GALLERY: Puppy snuggle sessions at Richmond Animal Care and Control
The nurse admitted that her work can be stressful. She said being mindful of your stress level is crucial.
"It's really good to look at yourself and say, 'How am I coping with the stresses of my everyday life. Have I really taken time to let myself calm down?'" she said. "Because [of] the internet and just the age of information that we are in, it's just so easy to just get swept up and keep on going and going and going."
As a result, she said it is important to "carefully monitor" how much time you spend on social media.
"There is this false sense of authenticity that I feel like video and photography and pictures creates, and the content is just not really reflective of what people are experiencing on a day-to-day basis" she said. "Even adults struggle with it, but with kids whose brains aren't fully developed yet, they're consuming so much of this stuff."
Her father said that it is critical to take care of your mental and physical health.
"I really think physical fitness goes a long way to improving your mental health," he said. "In a 20-year career in the FBI, there's a lot of stressful things you run into. And that's one of the biggest things that they have always said... physical fitness goes a long way."
Petra said the pups were not only wonderful for relieving stress, but were also beneficial for mindfulness.
"The great thing about dogs is that they just show you how to just exist in the moments in between. And I feel like they're such a good model for how every day doesn't have to be special or exhilarating to be peaceful," Petra explained. "Dogs are a really good way to remind us how to get back to just just being in the present moment."
Woman: 'This is a great thing to do for everybody'
Tiffany Lord, another nurse, said she saw the posting on social media, so she signed up to "get some love" after a "rough couple of years.
"This is great that they're offering it. They should consider it on a regular basis," Lord said. "Everybody should get a chance to get some lovin' from these puppies."
Lord said the puppy session was different from cuddling with her Siberian Husky rescue at home because the pups had "a little more energy and a little more spunk to them."
The nurse said she believes the "lovable and non-judgmental" pups may lower blood pressure, make you smile and "make everything a little bit OK."
"These puppies are just rainbows and sunshine and happiness... How can you not think that's good? How can that not be relaxing?" Lord said.
Because life can be so busy and fast-paced, Lord said it is crucial to "spend a little bit of time and kind of de-stress and snuggle."
She was grateful for her 30-minute session and hopes they continue.
"I'm thankful they did this... and I hope they do it some more," Lord said. "Because I think this is a great thing to do for everybody, and I feel thankful we got chosen."
Shelter director: 'When they leave, they're a little bit brighter and a little bit happier'
Peters said it was a joy to allow people “to sit in a room with a fluffy puppy to make everything better.” And she thinks the puppies’ healing powers definitely worked.
“We've had a couple people that the minute they see them, they break down crying. We've had people laying on the floor and hugging them and just sobbing… letting out whatever they've had tucked in for as long as they've had it tucked in,” Peters said, “And when they leave, they're a little bit brighter and a little bit happier and a little bit lighter. And so, we have succeeded in our goal.”
Peters said the pups offer a judgment-free zone.
“I think we love animals because there's absolutely no judgment," Peters said. "The love is so powerful because there's no words. Sometimes just feeling and being, we forget to do that. And I think animals remind us that the world is good and kind and happy — and that we can focus on that. Something about a fluffy, warm, wiggly puppy just makes every day better. And it's unilateral.
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And thanks to the success of the event, the shelter plans to do it again.
“We get puppies all the time, and I think for the right litter that are laid back and chill and easy, definitely,” Peters said. “I think there's a huge need out there. We didn't understand the giant number of people that were like, 'Yes, please, I need help. My heart is hurting. Fill it with a puppy love.'”
Peters also hopes other shelters will embrace the idea.
“I hope that it's something that catches on,” Peters said. “I hope that other shelters across the country steal the idea. Imagine how wonderful a place it would be — every weekend somebody could go and hug a puppy somewhere. I think that's beautiful.”