SANTA ANA, Calif. - Purses, backpacks and textbooks are piled up on the floor, benches and any available surface, completely forgotten. Instead, students fill their hands and laps with four-legged friends.

The Orange County, Calif., chapter of The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs paid a visit to Chapman University School of Law’s Donald P. Kennedy Hall just before finals, as a courtesy to the students.

Jayne Kacer, associate dean of student affairs for the law school, said the dogs help relieve the stress of taking final exams in the law school.

“Yes, it is stressful. But it is manageable, with things like therapy dogs and good preparation, of course,” said Kacer.

The law school is three years of study, with up to two weeks of finals each year for some students. The typical first-year law student will have around five exams, one every other day for the course of a one- to two-week period. Each exam is about three hours long.

“In many instances the final exam constitutes their entire grade for the course,” said Kacer.

The school is taking extra steps to help students with the stress of the final exams. Days without classes or tests prior to finals are combined with free snacks, chair massages, pancakes cooked by professors - and the canines.

“During finals you have so much to do and you feel like you don’t have enough time to do it in,” said Alex Iorfino, who stopped and played with Shih Tzu therapy dog Nico. “With law finals, everything you did all semester comes down to three hours in an exam.”

Although law students may not need therapy in the tradition sense, a break from stress might be needed, said Kacer.

Shari Stack from The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs Inc., said their dogs have been getting more calls for “de-stress days” at colleges.

Therapy dogs do much more than help with pre-test stress. They’ve been brought to disaster sites, most recently to the aftermath of the Boston Marathon, Stack said.

The Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs are recognized by the American Kennel Club and make up a nationwide network of 5,000 active handlers and dogs that volunteer time, always free of charge, to bring therapy on all fours, one tail wag at a time.

They are emotional comfort dogs, not service dogs, and they have their own set regulations and skills. For a dog and handler to be certified for their therapy classification, they must pass a combination test with basic obedience, situational contact and social responses in medical settings.

“The dogs need to respond properly to commands such as sit and stay and they need to come when called. The dogs can’t be jumpers, barkers, and they have to like to be touched, because they are going to be touched. A lot,” said Stack.

The dogs will be poked, have their tails pulled, their paws petted, their noses stroked and more by people meeting them. There is also environmental sensory stimulation with loud noises. The dogs are approached with wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and intravenous medicine stands.

“They can’t at all be flustered by that. You can’t have them bark or be afraid of these things, or especially not run at the IV line and get tangled up in it,” said Stack.

Stack said that the dogs offer something beyond recreational time or a visit: unconditional love.

The dogs give company to the lonely, self-esteem to the sad and a welcome distraction to the tired or overworked, said Stack.

“The dogs will take people out of their realm of stress and to somewhere kinder,” said Stack.


2013 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)


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