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Canines help students cope as colleges explore pet therapy

Just down the hall from the reference desk at Emory University's law library in a room housing antique legal texts is Stanley the golden retriever puppy, barking his head off.

Stanley rolls around on the floor and chews on a squeaky toy while zombie-like law students wander in, giant grins breaking out on their weary faces when they see him. Puppy therapy -- just in time for finals week.

From Kent State University in Ohio to Macalester College in Minnesota, more and more pooches are around campus during exams to help students relax and maybe even crack a smile or two.

"We had a student who came in, and a staff person commented they had never seen that student smile," said Richelle Reid, a law librarian who started Emory's pet therapy program this year after hearing about one at the University of California, San Francisco.

"It has had positive effects, helping them to just have a moment to clear their minds and not have to think about studies, not have to think about books."

Pups are in counseling centers for students to visit regularly, or faculty and staff bring their pets to lift spirits.

Pet-friendly dorms also are popping up where students can bring their dogs or cats from home.

Want to check out a pet? It's possible at Harvard Medical School and Yale Law School, which both have resident therapy dogs in their libraries that can be borrowed through the card catalog just like a book.

Some dogs, such as Harvard Medical School's resident shih tzu, Cooper, hold regular office hours. Researcher Loise Francisco-Anderson owns Cooper and said she got permission to bring him to campus after her husband read that Yale Law School had a therapy dog on campus named Monty.

Cooper is so popular that undergraduate students have been petitioning for him to spend time on their side of campus. Many of them take the shuttle across the river to the medical school just to visit the pup on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

"You can release some of the emotions to a pet that you can't to a human. A pet keeps it confidential. You don't have to worry about someone else saying, 'Oh, I think she's having a nervous breakdown over the science exam,' " said Francisco-Anderson.

Most schools, like Emory, partner with organizations that train companion dogs so that the canines get their social training while students get stress relief. Others, like at Harvard, have faculty members bring their dogs -- which are certified to be therapy pups -- to campus certain hours during the week.

The service is almost always free for students.

Research shows that interaction with pets decreases the level of cortisol -- or stress hormone -- in people and increases endorphins, known as the happiness hormone. Scant research exists on how pet programs on college campuses help students cope with stress.

That's why Kathleen Adamle, a nursing professor at Kent State, is seeking a grant to conduct research as part of her "Dogs on Campus" program. Adamle launched the program in 2006 with just her dog, and she has since added 11 therapy canines to the team that visits dorms regularly throughout the year.

The dogs belong to Adamle or other community members and are certified therapy dogs.

She has plenty of anecdotal evidence that her program works. As soon as there's a tragedy on campus -- a student dies in a car wreck, for example -- dorms scramble to book the dog team to help comfort upset students, she said.

"I don't care if it's 10 at night; we go to that dorm and sit on the floor. The kids are crying, and they grab the dog and put their face in the fur and just let it go," she said.

Since 2006, Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., has asked faculty and alumni to bring their dogs to campus during finals as part of the "Dog Day Afternoon" program. At Kenyon College in Ohio, the counseling center and dorms offer puppy play dates with Sunny the yellow lab and Sam the poodle-Chihuahua mix.

Last month, Indiana University students romped around with dogs in the first "Rent-a-Puppy" day. For $5, students could book time with one of 20 puppies from the local animal shelter and adopt them if they couldn't bear to say goodbye.