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Finals week tension eased by four-legged therapists

Step into the Emory law school during finals and tension hangs in the air like humidity.

But in the MacMillan Law Library, the mood is surprisingly playful as stressed students allow the weight of exams to slide away — if only for one delicious moment.

The remedy? Four furry paws, two earnest eyes and one cold nose.

This spring, for the first time, the Emory law library offered to put a warm, fuzzy face on finals week, offering students, faculty and staff a chance to take a different kind of stress break.

The invitation was simple: Would you like to pet a dog?

Third-year Emory Law student Will Romine didn't need to be asked twice. He entered the Fyr Rare Book Room, dropped to all fours, and began romping with 5-month-old Jazzy, a flirtatious Labradoodle.

Don't ask how many times he's been here for a dog fix during finals. He's lost count.

"I have one more test, and I'm on the way out," says Romine, who plans to become a diplomat with the Foreign Service.

"If I don't graduate, I'm blaming you guys," he adds, joking with Susan Dansberry, a volunteer trainer for Canine Assistants, which teaches service dogs to aid people with physical disabilities.

Using therapy dogs to relieve the stress of finals has been gaining popularity across the country in recent years. "We borrowed the idea from the University of San Francisco's Zief Law Library," says Richelle Reid, the assistant law librarian for student services who helped arrange the event.

The four-legged therapists were provided by two local nonprofit groups: Canine Assistants, which provides service dogs, and Happy Tails Pet Therapy, which promotes the benefits of animal-assisted therapy and the human-animal bond.

The student wellness project, which ran from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. over six days, employed six dogs per day, working for two-hour shifts in teams of two.  Participants signed up to spend time with the dogs in 20-minute intervals. Several returned for repeat visits.

In the laughter and sighs, you could feel the tension evaporate.

"So far, we've averaged about 50 people a day — last Wednesday, there were people everywhere, with appointments overlapping. And we've seen a little bit of everyone, professors, students, staff, fiancées and family members — you name it," Reid laughs.

Studies have long endorsed the health benefits of keeping company with pets, which can help reduce depression and anxiety, lower blood pressure and heart rates, improve feelings of psychological well-being, and combat feelings of loneliness.

But for college students, living on campus can mean a virtually pet-free existence for four years or beyond. "I live in a dorm and I think the only thing that you are allowed to keep is a fish — not very cuddly," says Jessica Coons, an undergraduate majoring in English and psychology who works in the law library.

"Having a chance like this reminds you of home," she added, stroking the silky blonde ears of Rosie, a grinning golden retriever.

Katherine Brokaw, assistant dean for student affairs at the law school who stopped by for her own therapeutic moment, says the program is a good fit for Emory's efforts to create a healthy campus and a positive, practical tool for stress management — something students can carry with them after graduation.

"Law school is hard; the stakes are high and it's stressful," Brokaw says. "How do you deal with that in a healthy way? To be successful lawyers, students need to find ways to balance those elements. Small moments of humanity help."

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