A little puppy love helps soothe exam-week jitters Furry distractions let C of C, Citadel students escape pressure

Ella, a coonhound, from Carolina Coonhound Rescue gives sophomore Marlin Campbell a kiss as dozens as of cadets surround the Daniel Library on the Citadel campus for Doggy Day.

There’s only one day each semester that can turn even the toughest upperclassman into a babbling pile of mush.

That’s Doggy Day at The Citadel. Or “Puppy Day,” as the cadets call it, somewhat aspirationally. And Tuesday, you could hear the howls across Summerall Field.

Finals at The Citadel begin this week. To help students and cadets relieve pent-up anxiety, the prestigious military academy invited local animal adoption agencies and a few of their dogs to campus for a couple of hours. It’s one of the more highly anticipated and popular events of the school year. By 11 a.m., at least 200 cadets risked getting hair on their uniforms and slobber on their shoes to flock to the lawn outside Daniel Library for a fresh Krispy Kreme donut and a chance to pet a pooch.

“Word spreads pretty easily around here about Puppy Day,” said sophomore Daniel Choi. “We get a little lonely. The fact that we get to see some dogs, some puppies relieves some stress.”

“Between spring break and winter break, Puppy Day is sandwiched right in between,” said senior Kevin Thornton. “As manly as this school pretends to be, on Puppy Day, everyone shows their true colors.”

“I planned my day around it,” added senior Carson Smith. “Let’s put it that way.”

“We were told there were going to be puppies,” protested freshman Brandon Horton. “But there’s not any puppies.”

Admittedly, some cadets felt cheated about the lack of puppies this semester, but most welcomed the midday distraction. Across the country, colleges have begun housing therapy pets for stressed-out students seeking a cuddly study break. “Puppy rooms,” “pet stations” and campus dog programs have popped up at schools like Queens College in New York, Emory University in Atlanta and Kent State in Ohio. Harvard Medical School has a Shih Tzu named Cooper that students can “check out” from the library for 30 minutes of play or snuggle time. Yale has two therapy dogs – Finn and Monty – that hang out at its medical and law school libraries.

Doggy Day at The Citadel started in 2011. The College of Charleston began hosting dogs from Pet Helpers two years earlier. On Friday, students will find dogs on the Rivers Green — in addition to an aromatherapist, acupuncturist, and massage therapist — from noon to 3 p.m. Lindy Coleman, associate director of the college’s Center for Student Learning, says the event is the most popular one during final-exams week, typically attracting about 500 students over the course of three hours.

“It’s just a very calming, soothing thing for them to be around. I think it reminds them of their own family pets,” she said. “They’ll be out there waiting for the Pet Helpers to come.”

The evidence supporting the positive impacts of dogs on campus isn’t anecdotal, either. Plenty of research shows the mental, not to mention physical, health benefits of dog ownership. Studies have linked canine companionship to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced risk factors for cardiovascular disease and fewer allergies in children. Spending as little as five minutes with a dog can decrease a person’s level of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” and boost levels of dopamine and endorphins, the feel-good chemicals in our brains.

“In general, the unconditional love that people receive, particularly at finals time, can be beneficial,” said Gretchen Carlisle, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction. And for a few moments, the pressure to get good grades, please parents and impress professors melts away. “People don’t have to worry about that when they’re interacting with a dog. They can be themselves and they can relax.”

At Daniel Library, Ella, a floppy-eared black and tan coonhound from Carolina Coonhound Rescue, yelped and panted while sophomore Jeremy Fiedler barely held onto her leash. He’s got two dogs, Abby, an Australian shepherd mix, and Whitlock, a pale brown mutt, back home in Columbia. He usually gets the jitters before finals, but, standing in the sunlight with Ella, he didn’t think once about his upcoming English exam. His first Puppy Day, he said, lived up to the hype.

“I was surprised they didn’t have puppies, but that’s about it,” he said. “Other than that, all of my dreams were fulfilled. I just love playing with dogs.“

Before heading back to the barracks, he bent over, puckered his lips, and kissed Ella on top of her head while she craned her neck to lick his face.

“Can we do this forever?” asked one cadet, as he nuzzled a lab mix named Addie.

“I’d never stop,” said another.

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.