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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Therapy dogs help students 'paws' for stress relief

Two of UNC’s libraries provided more than a quiet place to cram for finals this winter. They offered exam study breaks packed with the kind of comfort that comes on four legs: puppy love.

Therapy dogs sit under tiny hands in therapeutic playgroups, soothe those experiencing grief and visit hospitals to bring happiness to patients and families. Now, the practice is gaining popularity on college campuses, especially during exams.

Stephanie Willen Brown, librarian at the journalism school’s Park Library, first heard about hosting therapy dogs from colleagues at the University of Connecticut a few years ago. There, pet therapy was so beneficial in relieving students’ stress that it became a regular part of exams.

Then, a few Carolina faculty members put on the pressure here.

“They started pestering me about it,” Brown said, laughing. Brown likes dogs, but she is, admittedly, not a dog person. She talked it over with Megan Garrett, then the school’s library assistant, and a dog lover. With Brown’s blessing, Garrett made it her mission to get dogs into the library for last December’s upcoming exams.

“I contacted Eyes, Ears, Nose and Paws to find therapy dogs appropriate for a college crowd and coordinated with the Office of Human Resources and Office of University Counsel to make sure I was following the rules about signage for those with allergies or who are afraid of dogs,” Garrett said.

The event was so popular, therapy dogs returned for spring exams, and were back for a third time this month, drawing a steady crowd. Photos circulated quickly on Twitter, aided by the hashtag #JOMCDogs. (See the journalism school's therapy dog Facebook album.)

Tending to others’ needs

Visits from the dogs turn the library into “an old fashioned salon,” Brown said. “With lower stress, we can all think of new ideas. I get to connect with faculty I don’t see very often. The value of that to the University is huge.”

The library is the most likely place to find students preparing for final exams, a time when Brown is even more mindful of the needs of her visitors. The therapy dog event extends her reach.

“In the library, we’re a safe place for students,” she said. “We can give them advice on their work, but we’re not grading them. This is the natural place to provide this therapy dog service.”

When Garrett became events director for the school, she made dog therapy an annual event that benefits everyone. 

Like so many people on campus, Garrett is busiest in December. “Staff are crunched, faculty are grading and students need relief from studying,” she said. “People from all over campus email me asking when the dogs are coming back.”

A profound connection

Alice Dawson, senior assistant dean for academic advising in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been aware of the therapeutic connection between humans and animals for years. It was the topic of her graduate school research, and an idea she turns to often.

“My primary focus is dealing with students who are experiencing crisis or difficulties, and I think the connection humans make with animals, particularly dogs, is profound,” she said.

This winter she partnered with Suchi Mohanty, head of the Undergraduate Library, to add another therapy dog event on campus: Exam Paws, an afternoon event in the Undergraduate Library with cookies and a rotating cast of eight trained therapy dogs.

Like Brown, she knew the libraries would be heavily trafficked by students, and she wanted to bring the service straight to them.

Ten minutes before the first shift even began, Dawson counted 75 students taking turns sitting in a circle and reaching for the playful puppy in the middle. By the end of the day, 2,000 students had stopped by.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would be so successful,” Dawson said. “This is the whole point of what I do, and what those in my office do. Exam time can be a huge, difficult part of students’ lives.”

Some students watched quietly while others encouraged a dog performing tricks in the middle of the circle. The quieter dogs walked into outstretched hands, gazing into students’ eyes. Dawson heard the collective squeal when a dog pranced in wearing a red winter sweater.

“This really indicated how important something like this would be to have on a regular basis, because it reached our students directly,” she said. “It was a conversation piece for faculty and staff, too, and showed you don’t necessarily have to be in crisis to benefit from this connection.”

An opportunity to serve

Last spring, when one dog was unable to attend the journalism school’s event, Brown and Garrett called on Emily Silverman, associate director of development for UNC Libraries, for help.

Silverman’s basenji, Mickey, is a certified therapy dog. He and Silverman were happy to come to the students’ rescue.

“It was incredibly gratifying, and I want to do this more,” said Silverman, who brought Mickey again this year.

A former show dog, Mickey began a life of therapeutic service accompanying Silverman to visit a relative in a nursing home. Because Mickey was so popular with other residents as well, Silverman began the process of getting Mickey certified as a therapy dog.

“Dogs bring people comfort, and they help people tell stories,” she said. “Someone who is reluctant to talk is often able to open up when they’re scratching behind a dog’s ear.”

For college students, time spent with the dogs also provides the comfort of home during the chaos of exams.

“This is a non-judgmental living creature who is pleasant to be with, and that provides stress relief,” Silverman said, “and many of these students also have a pet waiting at home.” 

As a therapy dog handler, Silverman said she has seen how dogs can be the bridge to a human relationship. Sitting in Park Library, she watched Mickey interact with each visitor as faculty, staff and students engaged in conversations they might not have had otherwise.

It was an opportunity for her, as well.

“My job doesn’t give me that much interaction with students, so I got to hear what they were up to and how exams were going for them,” she said. “That’s why I work here, after all: to be of service to these students first and foremost.

“I think we’ve really hit on something here,” she said.