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Dogs Help Students Relax Before Finals

By Sonya Stinson

How one community college eased students’ stress levels with the help of some four-legged friends.

Manchester Community College (MCC), in Connecticut, hosted three very welcome guests the week before first-semester finals: a yellow Lab, a Golden Retriever and a very large, heavily drooling Newfoundland.

It was the first such event at MCC, although students have been treated to other stress-relieving perks, such as yoga sessions and coffee and tea breaks, around finals, says Debbie Herman, the college’s director of library and educational technology. Other Connecticut colleges and universities have been inviting therapy dogs to campus for several years. When MCC administrators saw the success of an event during the fall 2014 midterms at Naugatuck Valley Community College, in Waterbury, they contacted the local nonprofit Tails of Joy to arrange an event, which was co-sponsored by the library and the Disability Services Department.

Because Tails of Joy’s services are so popular, MCC associate library director Paula Pini had to get the ball rolling back in the summer in order to have everything set up by December, Herman says.

“During finals time, they’re pretty much booked, so you have to act quickly,” Herman says.

Dog therapy works

In a classroom just outside the entrance of the library, over two days, the dogs participated in separate one-hour meet-and-greet sessions with students. The location was away from the main part of the library in order to be sensitive to people with dog-related allergies or fears. But for people who wanted to interact with the animals, it was an instant lovefest.

“The students just kind of formed a circle around the dogs, and it was really the most amazing thing,” says Herman, who adds that faculty, staff and administrators — including President Gena Glickman — also came over to mingle with the pooches. “With every newcomer, the dogs would go up and greet the student. It was the most marvelous thing to watch.”

In addition to colleges and universities, Tails of Joy offers its program for free to public libraries, nursing homes, medical rehabilitation facilities and other places. Besides dogs, the group also offers sessions with cats and rabbits.

“We gave them a donation because they are such a great organization and have a wonderful mission, but there is no cost associated with it,” Herman says.

The success of MCC’s dog-therapy sessions exceeded organizers’ expectations, Herman says. Faculty members relayed students’ positive reviews to Herman and others, and the most frequent comments she heard from the students themselves were, “When will [the dogs] be back?” and “Can I check one out of the library?”

While that second request couldn’t be granted, Herman was happy to report that MCC will bring the dogs back before the next finals week, and possibly for midterms as well. In fact, because of the high demand, the college may invite one or two additional dogs.

“Given the terrific attendance we got at the event, we do plan to do it again and expand it,” she says. “It’s a testimony to the fact that students are really looking for that kind of comfort during the final exam period.”

Herman, a dog lover herself, says that by helping students relax and relieve stress before finals, dog therapy may actually improve retention.

“I know when I was a college student — and I was a reasonably good student — I would think about dropping out once a semester, and that was invariably around finals time,” she says. “So we lose students. And if we are able to retain just one, it’s completely worth it.”

Photo courtesy of Manchester Community College

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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