These Dogs Are Helping Olympic Hopefuls

At last week’s Olympic swimming trials, spectators got to see the very best American swimmers compete to attend the 2016 Olympics. What they may not have known is that behind the scenes were creatures not often see poolside: Dogs. USA Swimming welcomed 30 therapy dogs at the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska, to help swimmers cope with stress and anxiety associated with competing. The therapy dogs appear to have been a resounding success, with at least one competitor claiming that the friendly pups improved her performance in the water.

From June 26 to July 3, more than 1,700 swimmers gathered in Omaha to compete for spots on the U.S. Olympic team, headed to Rio de Janeiro in August. Morgan Weinberg, the program and services manager for USA Swimming, decided to get creative with the services offered to stressed athletes at the trials. “I'm an animal lover myself,” Weinberg told the Associated Press, “and I was trying to think of different ways in the athlete lounge that they would calm down and kind of just relax and have fun. I like dogs, I thought about dogs, and it just kind of evolved into therapy dogs.”

Weinberg contacted Domesti-PUPS, a nonprofit based in Lincoln, Nebraska, that provides therapy and service dogs. Although you might be more familiar with therapy dogs in the contexts of hospitals, hospices, and traumatic situations, it turns out that they were a great fit for the stressful environment of a major athletic competition. “Anywhere there's an elevated level of stress, we can take our dogs and try to de-stress them,” Sandy Ludwig, a handler for Domesti-PUPS, told the AP. “These dogs are just lying there, waiting to have their bellies rubbed or their ears scratched.”

Although images (you can see video here) of the therapy dogs show them mostly lounging about and getting snuggles, for these dogs, being extremely chill is a real job. According to the AP, they worked at the swim trials in teams of four, with three-hour shifts. They wore collars saying, “Please ask to pet me. I'm friendly,” and each had its own security credentials.

The dogs were popular among the swimmers, some of whom claimed that being around the calm canines actually helped them in their races. Ludwig recalled one swimmer sending 20 minutes with one of the dogs. She told the AP, “About an hour later, she came back and said, ‘That was a best swim I ever had.’ She said, ‘I was so relaxed when I went and jumped in the pool.’”

When you consider the affect that therapy dogs can have on people experiencing stress, it makes sense that they could have an effect on athletic performance. A press release from Domesti-PUPS explains,

Scientific studies show that canine interaction increases a human's level of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces anxiety and blood pressure. Petting a dog helps people become less frightened, more secure and diverts their attention away from their own fears or anxieties.

So, will therapy dogs become the new norm at high stakes athletic competitions? Only time will tell, but if they do help athletes win races, no doubt they will become PUPular in short order. (I’M SORRY).

Image: Caleb Fisher/Unsplash