Helen ambles through the residence hall at Naperville's North Central College sporting a name tag and greeting everyone she sees with a smile.
The students she meets collectively coo and gather around her with large grins as Helen eagerly lies down for a belly rub,
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This is not a typical meet-and-greet; Helen is a Labrador retriever and the students are looking for a quick break from studying for final exams they'll face in less than a week.
Helen was at North Central Thursday as part of Dyson Dog Days, a free session held once a term that gives students a chance to scratch therapy dogs behind the ears to help ease the stress of the approaching finals week.
Helen and her seven canine peers who spent a couple hours at North Central are volunteers in Edward Hospital's Animal-Assisted Therapy Program, which includes 90 pooches. The event at North Central is part of a growing trend: therapy dogs assisting college students with final exam-related stress.
"I come as often as I can," junior Francesca Cannizzaro said. "So many of us live in the dorms and can't be around the calming influence of animals, so this is definitely beneficial."
The two-hour North Central session held at the end of every term usually draws about 250 students, or more than 10 percent of the school's population, organizer Meghan Pickett said. She said she sees no sign of the program slowing down.
"It's proven to be extremely popular," she said. "College students may have close friends, but a dog is approachable and can be embraced with love without warning. I've seen students come in without talking, drop their bags and immediately hug a dog."
Dyson Dog Days, named after the school's Dyson Wellness Center, began in 2013 with Pickett's tour of the Linden Oaks' Behavioral Health Center in Naperville with her fellow Peer Health Educators. A plaque featuring therapy dogs caught her eye and the canines have been visiting the college once a term ever since.
"These events are always wonderful," said therapy dog volunteer Linda Nemeth. "The dogs often work with people with disabilities or hospital patients so everyone involved with these college visits has a great time."
Nemeth has been working with the therapy team since its inception in 2002, when the program was established as a way to ease patients into the hospital environment and be reminded of home.
"And I think that's what many of these dogs do for us," Pickett said. "Remind us of home."
Therapy dogs such as Helen undergo 30 hours of training, and are subjected to loud hospital noises such as sirens and clattering medical equipment before being allowed to participate in the program. Once they are certified, they make a noticeable impact on patients' health.
"Often I'll work with Helen in cardiac units and we can visibly see a patient's blood pressure drop the longer the dog stays in the room," Nemeth said.
North Central is not the only school in the area to turn to therapy dogs in times of academic stress. Northern Illinois University also brings dogs on its campus to ease the minds of frazzled students.
"Spring and summer semesters are especially hard on some students," said NIU Health Educator Andrea Drott. "Lots of seniors are worrying about graduating and landing jobs, and that can lead to serious anxiety."
The symptoms of stress related to finals include sleep depression, lack of appetite and increased soreness -- all areas that are exacerbated with the typical collegiate tradition of cramming and all-nighters.
Drott says that while therapy dogs can't directly assist with these problems, they can be beneficial for an undervalued health angle among university students.
"Therapy dogs can't help with everything, but they definitely balance out emotional health," Drott said. "And college students need that most of all."