Volunteer dogs help UMaine students relax, relieve stress of final exams

Posted May 01, 2013, at 8:50 p.m.
Last modified May 02, 2013, at 5:30 a.m.

ORONO, Maine — On a day that traditionally serves as the last chance for University of Maine students to blow off steam before a tough week of finals, canine volunteers helped students relax and smile inside Fogler Library on Wednesday.

May 1 was Maine Day at UMaine — a day off from classes with a focus on campuswide cleanups, service projects, a parade and celebrations before students hunker down to crack the books in preparation for finals week, which runs May 6-10. Nonetheless, dozens of students walked into Fogler Library on Wednesday afternoon to get an early start on studying or pump out a paper.

As students walked into the library’s large reading room, smiles broke onto their faces and many flocked to Atticus, a 10- or 12-year-old yellow Lab mix, and Joey, a 6-year-old Shetland sheepdog.

Rebecca Henderson of Holden-based Renaissance Dogs, a dog training and daycare facility, has organized a group of volunteer therapy dogs and handlers to come to UMaine’s library during finals to help students relax, laugh and take a breather from high-pressure test preparation.

Students sat on the floor around the dogs, petting the therapy canines as they walked around to greet students who approached.

“We all just have this desire to share our love for our dogs with others,” Henderson said of the group of dog trainers and owners who have volunteered to bring their dogs to the school during the next two weeks.

Studies have shown that dogs help humans’ mental and physical health. A University of Japan study, for example, found that when dogs and humans interact, oxytocin releases rapidly in the human body, leading to reduced blood pressure, lower stress levels and emotional bonding.

Other studies have indicated that college students are more stressed than ever. A 2012 study by the American College Counseling Association found 37 percent of college students who seek counseling have severe psychological problems, up from 16 percent in 2000. More than 10 percent of college students seek some form of mental health counseling during the course of their college careers. Of 228 counselors surveyed, more than three out of four reported that crises requiring immediate response have increased in the past five years.

UMaine students requested the dog service on a suggestion message board inside Fogler Library, Gretchen Gfeller, spokeswoman for the library said Wednesday.

“One of the things they’ve been asking for this semester is, ‘Please bring puppies for finals,’” she said.

The library listened, and Gfeller contacted Henderson to organize the service. Many other universities, including the University of New Hampshire, University of North Carolina, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, have had similar programs.

Fogler Library is packed throughout finals week and the week before, with some students staying until the library closes at 2:30 a.m. after its extended finals week hours.

“This is really for our students,” Gfeller said. “Anything that any of us can do on campus to ease that pressure and give them a little break from stress is appreciated.”

Henderson said seven dogs — including Atticus and Joey, as well as Papillons, a corgi, a chocolate lab and a goldendoodle — would be brought to campus during the next two weeks.

Dogs and their handlers will be available in the library May 2-3, 10 a.m.-noon; May 6-7, 2-4 p.m.; and May 8, 2:30-4:30 p.m..

“Things start getting a lot more serious next week,” Gfeller said.