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A bark before the break

Therapy dogs among initiatives to relieve students’ end-of-term stress

St. John Ambulance therapy dog Bella is joined by handler Deb Wilson, reference librarian Allison Bell (right) and students at the Gerstein Science Information Centre (photo by Liam Mitchell)

With exams approaching, term papers due and 12 long weeks of class coming to an end, students (and many faculty and staff) are understandably stressed. But not to worry, Bella’s here to help.

A therapy dog with St. John’s Ambulance, Bella is a hound mix with a welcoming personality and the patience to let you pet away your problems. She is one of many initiatives available to U of T students who need to decompress before writing their exams this month.

“I had heard about it happening at other institutions, not necessarily libraries, but other institutions akin to our academic success centre,” says Allison Bell, the Coordinator of the Reference & Research Unit at Gerstein Science Information Centre, where Bella is making her appearances.

“As the Science and Health Sciences library on campus, Gerstein staff felt this was a great way to use scientific evidence to design a program for the benefit of all U of T students,” Bell adds.

Dogs as well as other animals have been shown to reduce blood pressure, cortisol production, stress as well as anxiety. Similar programs have been implemented at Harvard, Yale, McGill and Dalhousie, among others.

“We thought this was a good time of year to give students a five or 10 minute break, pet a dog, relieve their stress and go back to studying in a better frame of mind,” says Bell.

In Bella’s first appearance at Gerstein last week, she met more than 75 students, faculty and staff members who needed her unique services.

Bella isn’t the only dog on the St. George Campus. Therapy dogs will be onsite as part of Exam Jam, which will take place December 6. The event is an opportunity to participate in review sessions with faculty members and participate in stress relieving activities, such as massages as well as some additional pet therapy. The event is being organized by the Faculty of Arts & Science and sponsored by the Arts and Science Students’ Union, the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, MoveU, Hart House and Health & Wellness.

“Exam Jam began as a pilot project last spring and by our estimate, we had around 700 students some through [Sidney Smith Hall],” explains Kelly Jay, Arts and Science’s Associate Faculty Registrar, Student Affairs.

Key to the events success, beyond the presence of food and animals, are the voluntary review sessions professors hold. This year, 19 professors are offering exam prep courses, primarily focused on first-year and second-year courses with enrolment of more than 70 students.

Students at the U of T Mississauga aren’t missing out on quality canine time either. Residence Life at UTM will be hosting therapy dogs in the lobby of Oscar Peterson Hall on Dec. 11 beginning at 1 p.m. This follows an Exam Jam hosted by the historical studies department at UTM, and organized by Professor Shafique N. Virani, which offered exam reviews in addition to food and yoga, among other activities.

Engineering has been preparing its students for exams since early November by offering workshops on coping with exam anxiety, organized by Laurie Coleman, the Faculty’s counsellor and wellness coordinator. In addition, Engineering hosts an ongoing Undergraduate Engineering Wellness Group, which provides students with a place to discuss their challenges with stress and transition. And the student-run Galbraith Society is offering final exam study sessions for selected first year courses.

At U of T Scarborough, staying active is one of the possible solutions to beat the exam blues. For a toonie or canned food donation, UTSC Athletics & Recreation, in cooperation with PACE (Physical Activity Coaches & Educators) and MoveU, is offering special extended yoga classes and activity classes through exam time. In addition, the campus’ Department of Student Life offers an Exam Jam brochure that directs students to useful services, including appointments with academic and career counselling as well as links to facilitated study groups a website that lists study spaces.

For Onaizah Onaizah, a fourth-year physics student at Innis College, events like the Exam Jam help students find balance during while studying.

“People don’t realize the benefits and helpfulness of de-stressing before writing exams… It’s not something people normally think about. And even in fourth-year, that anxiety doesn’t go away,” she says.

Abdullah Shihipar, a second-year University College student majoring in cell and molecular biology, agrees and says that the key is balance.

“When you are studying in a library or on campus, it’s hard to maintain the balance between your course work and studying with time to relax and stay healthy,” he says, noting that students will often need to wander off campus to find a distraction from looming deadlines and exam pressures.

“Making these opportunities available on campus makes it a lot easier to keep things in perspective.”

For those who need her, Bella will be back in the Marvin Gerstein Room Dec. 12 and 13 from 1:30 – 3:00 p.m.