- College is going to the dogs, and even a few cats these days.
As a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania for 38 years, Mary Jalongo saw her share of students stressed out as finals approached.
Now retired, Jalongo, a longtime dog lover who has researched and written about the benefits of therapy dogs, is doing her part to ease those stress levels. She is among a legion of therapy dog handlers who have put college campuses throughout the region on their itineraries.
Once the province of nursing homes, hospitals and elementary schools, therapy dogs - canines specially trained and certified to interact with people in institutional settings - are going to college.
On Sunday night therapy dogs visited University of Kansas students studying for finals at Anschutz Library.
KU’s Watkins Health Services works with Loving Paws Animal Assisted Therapy Program to bring dogs onto campus - at residence halls and libraries - to help students deal with stress. The Stress Busting Study Breaks take place before and during finals weeks.
Students such as Nicollette Long, an IUP sophomore from Philadelphia, couldn’t be happier to see the dogs on campus.
Long, 20, was among hundreds of students taking a break from studying for finals and finishing term papers to head to the school’s Stapleton Library on Wednesday to pet a pup.
Although there were about a half dozen handlers with a variety of therapy dogs - ranging from an 85-pound golden retriever to a pint-sized Pomeranian - it was Jalongo’s laid-back Italian greyhound, Fiona, that caught Long’s eye and claimed her heart.
"Being an animal lover and growing up with dogs, she put a smile on my face. She was just an adorable, loving dog. And it was very relaxing, especially right before I had to go to math class," Long said.
The feeling is mutual, said Julie Baker of Blairsville.
Baker’s 2-year-old golden retriever, Marley, lapped up the attention and ended up on his back enjoying belly rubs from students.
For three hours, students drawn by an explosion of postings on social media, flocked to the library at the edge of a grassy campus area known as the Oak Grove. The normally quiet facility took on a coffeehouse-like feel, buzzing with conversation and laughter as scores of students stopped by to take a break.
The animals and their owners - all volunteers - are part of Jalongo’s Indiana-based therapy dog group.
They have been going to the library for finals week for three years now. At first, they were relegated to a tent outside the library, then invited onto the steps and finally into the library.
"We inched our way in. It took a little bit of convincing. I remember saying to Theresa (McDevitt), a librarian who is my partner in crime, that one of my goals was to get dogs in that library before I retire," Jalongo said.
The well-behaved hounds were invited inside shortly before Jalongo retired last year.
She said the dogs have a way of connecting with students who are tired, stressed out and maybe just a little homesick as the school year winds down.
"A lot of students will tell us this reminds them of their dogs back home. Then they’ll break out their cellphones and show you the pictures," Jalongo said.
She said there is growing research showing that interacting with a friendly dog can lower blood pressure and pulse levels elevated by stress, she said.
In recent years, therapy dogs have become a fixture on many campuses during the mad rush to finals.
At the University of Pittsburgh, the dogs are seen every Tuesday evening in the massive Gothic Commons Room of the Cathedral of Learning. Likewise, they are regular visitors on the campus at LaRoche College. Volunteers with the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society provide canine therapy at those schools.
Seton Hill University in Greensburg also hosts therapy dogs during midterms and finals weeks.
This year, Seton Hill has added yet another animal element to its campus culture.
About once a week, it’s "Cuddle a Kitten Day" at Seton Hill.
Terri Bassi-Cook, director of counseling, disability and health services at Seton Hill, hit on the concept after she adopted a pair of kittens that students found abandoned near the school’s athletic fields last fall.
Students kept asking about the kittens, so one day she brought them to campus. Word got out quickly on social media, and students began lining up to see the Reba and Lacey.
"I started to observe kids who didn’t know each other, talking while they were waiting. The kittens were a great icebreaker. When I saw that happening, I thought ‘that’s a no-brainer.’ So I decided to try to build on that," Bassi-Cook said.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, a group of sophomores sat quietly with Reba and Lacey in a small sitting room on the fifth floor of Seton Hill’s administration building.
Maria Campbell, a 19-year-old sophomore from Plum, stroked Reba.
Across the room, Nadine Few, 19 of Canonsburg, sat cross-legged on the floor in front of an upholstered chair where Lacey had made herself at home.
"Hello. My name’s Nadine and I’m a psych major," she said, gazing at the cat, then snapping a selfie.
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com
Kansas City Star reporter Lisa Gutierrez contributed to this story