Brunswick stress busters: Bowdoin College students get 'fuzz therapy' during finals

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BRUNSWICK — Like celebrities evading paparazzi, six furry guests were quietly slipped through a side door into a nondescript first-floor reading room at the Bowdoin College library, barely noticed by the dozens of students anxiously lined up to receive them. 

But when the door opened, sophomore Laura Block made a beeline for Riot, a mottled Australian shepherd, wrapping her arms around the dog in a full embrace. 

“I miss my dog at home so much, and it just makes me so happy to do this,” Block said. “The second I walk in, I’m so much happier.”

This is the second year the college library has brought in a team of trained therapy dogs to calm stressed students facing the pressure of end-of-semester exams. 

“There is something about unconditionality in animals and pets that helps people soften, relax, feel more at ease, and probably feel less stressed,” Bernie Hershberger, director of counseling services at Bowdoin, said.

Animal therapy is just part of a college program to help students manage anxiety. Other programs include yoga, Tai-Chi and peer-support groups.

But the hour of “fuzz therapy,” filled with wagging tails, wet noses and nuzzles, is probably the most popular event.

Handlers from the Casco Bay Dog Training Club brought in canine therapists from across the spectrum, from Tugboat, a Bernese mountain dog, to Bravo, a miniature poodle, as well as a collie, an English sheepdog and black Lab.

The variety shows that breeds don’t really matter when it comes to a good therapy dog, said Marcia Welch, Riot’s handler and owner of Positively Best Friends, a training business in Edgecomb. 

“It pretty much depends on their personalities and temperaments,” Welch said. 

Animal therapy is becoming more common settings like hospitals, schools and assisted living centers. It’s also catching on on college campuses.

“It forces (students) to just take a minute and relax for a little bit,” said Amy Heggie, the library’s circulation manager. Heggie organized “Dogs in the Library,” as well as other stress-relief programs, like a live set by an eight-piece string quartet, for the end-of-semester push.

Anxiety levels among among college students have been rising significantly in the last decade, Hershberger said, and it seems especially pronounced at institutions like Bowdoin, with lots of high-achieving students.

“Levels of perfectionism and anxiety are just pretty high,” he said. “So that’s why we keep trying to look at ways to keep trying to lower that, in the hope that people take those skills with them when they graduate.”

That undercurrent of stress reaches a “crescendo” in the final days of the semester, he said, as the entire campus scrambles to finish up exams and term papers.

In a study completed two years ago, the college found found that stress was most reduced in the presence of a dog or cat, and was most pronounced in the company of a significant other, Hershberger said.

Building on that study, he said the counseling office is looking at an ongoing program that would give students time with animals throughout the school year, rather than a quick hit at the end of each semester.

But for the students who took part on Dec. 15, even a fleeting moment with a furry companion was all the time they needed.

“It’s wonderful,” sophomore Liam Gunn said. “It’s either the best stress reliever in the world, or the worst procrastination method in the world, or both.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast

Sidebar Elements

Bowdoin College students, including Laura Block, left, and Liam Gunn, right, cuddle with Riot, an Australian shepherd, during a pet therapy session at the college library Monday, Dec. 15. 

Tugboat, a Bernese mountain dog, gets ready to greet Bowdoin College students at an animal therapy session at the college library on Monday, Dec. 15.

Bernie, an old English sheepdog, plays with Bowdoin College students during an animal therapy session at the college library on Monday, Dec. 15.

Bowdoin College juniors Zach Albert and Claire Velez cuddle with Riot, an Austrailian shepherd, during an animal therapy session at the college library on Monday, Dec. 15.

Handler Marcia Welch and Riot, an Australian shepard, prepare to greet Bowdoin College students as part of an animal therapy session at the college library on Monday, Dec. 15.