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Harried students find comfort in work with pet projects

A staple program of hospitals and nursing homes, therapy dogs are appearing on campuses as colleges work to reduce stress among students.

(MCT) CHAPEL HILL, N.C.− As students studied for exams at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Wednesday, smiles were hard to come by − except in the journalism library.

There, students took a break from leads and libel law and lined up to high-five Mickey, an 11-year-old therapy dog, who went from student to student so they could pet him, scratch his ears and rub his chest.

As four students surrounded the dog, he calmly extended his neck to make it easier for them to pet him at once.

Mickey was one of three therapy dogs brought to the School of Journalism and Mass Communication for students to de-stress on Reading Day, a day set aside for studying. In addition to Mickey, therapy dogs Bear and Whiskey each took shifts snuggling with students.

A staple program of hospitals and nursing homes, therapy dogs are appearing on campuses as colleges work to reduce stress among students. Librarian Stephanie Willen-Brown got the idea after hearing about a similar program at the University of Connecticut. The dogs went over so well with students last December that last semester the journalism library expanded the program to two days, and this semester the undergraduate library held its own therapy dog hours.

"It definitely improved my mood," said freshman Laura Gamo, 18, who has two exams left.

Mickey, a basenji that never barks, has been certified through Therapy Dogs International for seven or eight years, mostly visiting nursing, retirement and assisted-living homes, where older people enjoy his friendly, calm demeanor and curly tail. Owner Emily Silverman, who works for the Friends of the Library at UNC-CH, started bringing Mickey along when she visited a family member in a nursing home and noticed his connection with the residents.

"Especially with older folks, he seems to prompt really great memories they had with their own dogs and pets," Silverman said. "It seems to be a comfort."

Several students said they miss dogs they left behind when they came to school. Junior Courtney Lindstrand's black Labrador retriever, Duchess, is back home in Greenville, N.C.

"I miss my dog so much, especially during exams," Lindstrand said as she took a break from studying for her media law class to pet Mickey. "I'll be home on Friday, so this is my little placeholder right now."

Lindstrand, who has one exam left, posted pictures of therapy dog Whiskey to her Instagram after last week's event.

"It got a lot of likes," she said. "We were all tweeting about it, because we're journalism majors. That's what we do."

Willen-Brown and the journalism school's event coordinator, Megan Garrett, created Facebook events and posted pictures of the dogs to Twitter with the hashtag #jomcdogs.

Staffers and professors stressed by grading and the holidays also enjoy the dogs' visits. After last week's event, assistant director of admissions Melissa Kotacka posted pictures of Bear on the admissions blog, with anti-stress tips she said were inspired by the fluffy dog, including, "Ask for a helping hand."

"This is the event I plan every year that I need more than it needs me," Garrett said.

She posts fliers with the dogs' pictures so students with allergies can judge whether to visit a particular dog. Mickey and Whiskey have much shorter hair than the gregarious, long-haired Bear, who leaves the carpet covered in fur after his visits.


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