Therapy dogs: ‘Perfect medicine’ to help students survive finals

Posted at 8:54 AM, Dec 19, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-19 08:54:13-05

By Jen Christensen

(CNN) — The tension at Emory University’s Robert W. Woodruff Library is palpable.

It’s finals. Nearly every single desk is full amid a flurry of activity. A young woman in an Emory sweatsuit tears through her notebook as the furious whoosh of pages turning carries through the hushed study area.

Next to her, a group of young men stand in a circle, leaning in and frantically whispering a debate about supply side economics. To the left of them is another a young woman, her face firmly planted on a computer keyboard. She snores softly.

Everywhere students are stressed out — but not in the Jones Room.

Normally the Jones Room hosts world famous poets like Mary Oliver or Billy Collins. Today, its star attraction is Henry.

Henry is the spokesdog for CanineAssistants, an Alpharetta, Georgia-based nonprofit that trains and provides service dogs to children and adults with disabilities.

This sharp-eyed golden retriever isn’t reciting poetry, although as smart as he is, he probably could — if someone sneezes, he actually can bring them a tissue. But today, the K-9 volunteer is happily allowing himself to be petted. Henry and his colleagues along with their volunteer human handlers visit hospitals and schools as part of their training,

About half a dozen dogs are taking two-hour shifts at Emory. Students line up to get 10 minutes with them. These cute ambassadors of calm are part of a growing trend of colleges trying to help ease the pain of finals for students.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette, UC Berkeley, Columbia University, Marquette and dozens more campuses are providing what has become one of the more popular study breaks.

“It’s been fantastic for the students,” says Chris Daood, who works with the program out of Marquette University’s counseling center.

He advertises the event in advance and puts the dogs in an open space so students can casually walk by and engage with the animals. The organization Health Heelers brings its dogs and even a couple of mellow therapy cats.

Daood says it works.

“You see (students’) shoulders drop and see them smile. This is a great way for them to keep life in perspective. That really is the most significant part of the program. With academic stress, it’s not uncommon for students to get tunnel vision during finals. Five minutes with a cat or dog, it clears their head.”

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

Studies also show excessive stress, like the kind students may experience during finals, impairs memory. An activity that relieves that stress even for a moment improves a student’s ability to retain what they are trying to learn.

“Next,” calls out a librarian in wire-framed glasses as three young women crowd the door, excitedly peering over each other to see what’s inside. “Are you three together?” the librarian asks, as they nod in the affirmative.

She waves them in to a circle of chairs positioned around Wesley, a young dog so large he looks like his parents could have been horses or Great Danes.

The three get down on the floor and crowd around Wesley, positioned like the famous ancient statue of three muses. They coo and reach to stroke his long golden fur. The dog closes his eyes and goes limp.

“I’m all studied out,” Ali Serpe says as she strokes the dog’s back. The senior has one final left for her anthropology/human biology major. She’s also working on medical school applications. A lot rides on this work.

“This is exactly what I needed,” she says.

Erin Mooney, the library’s outreach and education librarian, says Emory got the idea for the study break from another library last year.

“We were surprised how many students showed up to pet the dogs,” she says. “There was such a crush of people. We had to do it again.”

Serpe stops petting Wesley to ask Susan Dansberry, the dog’s volunteer, about the dog’s training. As soon a she does the dog looks up as if she has done something wrong.

“OK, OK,” she says as she resumes petting and then kisses the dog’s head. “This really does help me, I guess he likes it too.”

Dansberry tells Serpe the dogs learn about 90 commands before they can become certified.

A retired insurance agent, Dansberry spends much of her free time volunteering with the dogs. She especially loves the hospital and school visits.

The dogs typically live on an 18-acre farm in Milton, Georgia, but go home with volunteers to learn “home manners,” as volunteer Karen Edge calls them.

The volunteers also get a list of sounds and environments the dogs must learn. The dogs get used to the sound of a vacuum or a computer printer. They learn to walk up stairs slowly rather than race. They ride escalators and elevators — anything to ensure they can be calm in the future.

Edge sits in a circle of her own with her dog Sneakers and a crowd of students. The dog is so relaxed, it is unclear if the dog is asleep or awake. Sneakers’ tranquility visibility relaxes the tense young woman who bends to pet him.

Edge says she took the day off from Oracle, where she works, to volunteer. She says she couldn’t resist the chance to see the dogs work their magic, even if the students only have 10 minutes with them.

“I know when I do work at home, these dogs are always making me laugh,” Edge says. “They make me happy all day. How could I pass up an opportunity to share them like this?”

Alex Harrison, an Emory junior, sits with the circle of students around another dog. He says this is his fourth time signing up. “I was here yesterday too.”

His phone buzzes. It’s a calendar alert telling him about another upcoming dog shift.

“I have dogs at home, but my parents live overseas, so they are very far away,” Harrison says. “I spent 18 hours at the library yesterday, so I just booked my appointments early in the day to make sure I got here and got to studying.”

He says he has three finals left, and the 10-minute bouts of canine calm will carry him through. “This is the happiest I’ve been all week,” he says, stroking the dog’s neck.

“I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but it’s time to say good-bye,” the time keeper says to the students. Their 10 minutes is up.

“Thank you for all that you do,” Serpe says quietly to the dog she’s been petting. “You are the perfect medicine for finals.”

Another student pulls out her cell phone to remember her new furry friend, saying, “this way when I’m studying, I’ve got something to calm me down.”

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