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At Dalhousie University therapy dogs are brought to the ‘puppy room’ so that students can visit and pet them to reduce stress before exams. Dec. 4th. 2012 - STUDENTS BREAK FROM STUDIES TO PET DOGS - Dalhousie University students pet Lulu, a seven year old Golden Retreiver in the Dalhousie University Student Union Building. Dalhousie Student Michael Kean came up with the idea of bringing the dogs to campus so students can visit the dogs and pet them to help releave stress before exams. (Sándor Fizli photo for the Globe And Mail)

Sándor Fizli

They're unleashing the hounds at Halifax's Dalhousie University to help students reduce stress during this exam period.

Michael Kean, a 21-year-old environmental science student, pitched the idea for therapy dogs to come to campus after hearing it had been tried at McGill University. His initiative was embraced by the Dalhousie Student Union. "It's just a simple solution to a problem that we have," he says. "Students are super stressed-out right now."

Tuesday was the last day of classes and the first of several two-hour sessions of the "puppy room." A long lineup of students, waiting to pet Colby, the five-year-old Labradoodle, a sheltie and a couple of other dogs, snaked through the halls of the Student Union Building. (One student said that he was stressed just looking at the line.) By the session's end, 460 students had visited the room. In addition, a shuttle bus will run students to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or SPCA, to walk dogs or pet kittens.

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"Research shows that pets can lower anxiety and even lower your blood pressure," says Marla Shapiro, host of Dr. Marla & Friends on CTV News Channel. "Exams are such a stressful period of time for students. Anything that makes you happy has the potential to raise our brain neurotransmitters and if time spent with the unconditional love of a pet makes you happy, it will reduce stress and anxiety."

This comes as Queen's University released a report making 116 recommendations to increase awareness of campus mental health issues in the wake of a series of student deaths there in 2010 and 2011. Victor Day, a psychologist with Dalhousie's counselling services, says that psychological problems among students are increasing.

Anxiety is the most common – and it's not just limited to exam time. "Our busy season is between September and April," he says. Last year, the service saw 2,158 different students, which is an 8 per cent increase from the year before; enrolment of 19,000 remained steady. "We're seeing more than 10 per cent of the students per year," noted Day.

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