"When all else fails, pet a puppy," reads a popular meme. Pre-exam jitters found some Saint Leo University students seeking comfort from the loveable dogs of Tranquil Pawz Therapy Dogs prior to the beginning of fall semester finals at the main campus.

Saint Leo University's Counseling Services offers "Puppies and Pizza" twice a semester—once just before midterms and again just before finals week. "We do this for multiple reasons including outreach, prevention, and stress reduction," said Tiffany Nelson, prevention counselor. "We know that the times around midterms and finals can be very stressful for students, and for this reason, we want to reach out to them in unique ways to meet their needs. Puppies and Pizza is a way to offer the stress reducing effects of therapy animals to students, while also letting them know about our free and confidential counseling services should they need further assistance."

On November 30, students were invited to grab a slice of pizza for a little sustenance, and then pet and cuddle the pooches, who were brought by their handlers/owners to campus. In addition, there was a doggy puzzle to solve, and students could sign up for free chair massages.

"The biggest benefit we see from this event is students relaxing, smiling, putting down their phones, and being 'in the moment' with the therapy dogs," Nelson said. "So many students tell us they miss their pets back home, and they love this event because of that."

"It really does work," said Mary Ann Campbell, who brought her Collie, Summer, to visit with the students. "You look around and everyone is smiling." 

Sophomore Kendal Grey said interacting with the dogs relieve stress, "especially when you've got five exams."

"It's soothing," added Alissa Grams, also a sophomore.

Nelson said that research shows there are myriad benefits students receive from pet therapy. It helps lower blood pressure, releases endorphins, which have a calming effect, and diminishes physical pain. Interacting with the dogs lifts spirits and lessens depression, decreases feelings of isolation, encourages communication, increases socialization and sense of community, and decreases anxiety, she added.

"It's definitely brightening my day," said first-year student Michael Aldridge. 

For Mary Eversmann, bringing her Shih Tzu- Chihuahua mix Lou to visit Saint Leo during Puppies and Pizza "is one of my favorite things to come to as the dogs can be themselves."

Lou sports a tie for every occasion, and for his visit to Saint Leo, he was ready with a red and white striped number, resembling a holiday candy cane.

He wasn't the only one in the holiday spirit as Katie, owned by Marlene Becker, was dressed in a Mrs. Claus outfit.

Counseling Services has sponsored Puppies and Pizza since 2016. Fellow co-sponsors of the event are Student Success coaches, Student Activities, Paws of Love (nonprofit organization), and this year, the Cannon Memorial Library.

True to Saint Leo's student-centered mission, the university holds the event to help ready students for their upcoming exams. In addition, Saint Leo holds Moonlight Breakfast, this year at 10 p.m. on December 3, to fuel the bodies and minds of the students. Faculty, administration, and staff help Dining Services serve a late-night breakfast to help students study (and perhaps pull an all-nighter). Even President Jeffrey D. Senese pitched in to serve breakfast. Studying help and tutoring also was offered to prepare students for their December finals.

So are college students more stressed than ever? "Anxiety is the No. 1 issue students are coming into the Counseling Center with, so yes!" Nelson said.

One of the biggest concerns for anyone struggling with mental health, especially college students, is feeling alone and that no one understands, she continued.

How to help

When it's time for exams, parents should keep an eye out for any significant changes in behavior in their college-aged students, keep the line of communication open, and do their best to normalize the fact that everyone struggles with mental health issues at times, Nelson advised. "Parents should also discuss common stumbling blocks with their college-aged students and identify resources and key personnel on campus such as Counseling Services, Student Success coaches, Residence Life, Accessibility Services, and University Ministry."