Final exams at Hopewell Valley Central High School. Days of high anxiety? Perhaps.

Diligent study has been and remains the best preparation for any big test. But this year, school administrators did their best to give students an assist in their pursuit of academic excellence by letting the school go to the dogs.

On June 12 and June 15, students flooded the patio outside the cafeteria around 7 a.m., before classes started. They were excited to greet a variety trained therapy dogs and their owners. The dogs are participants in the Paws for Minds program of the West Windsor-based nonprofit organization, Attitudes in Reverse, or AIR.

Students spent the early morning petting and playing with the dogs. The idea being that by the time they started the school day proper, they were relaxed and ready to face the challenge of final exams.

For years now, AIR dogs have been visiting area schools as part of its Paws for Minds program. AIR’s founding mission, and the mission that drives the organization today, is to provide mental health awareness and suicide prevention programs to youths and young adults.

But therapy dogs have been shown to be helpful in a wide variety of stressful situations in which young people find themselves—test taking being one such situation. They’ve been on hand during final exams the past five years at Rider University, and over the same period have regularly visited West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North during Advanced Placement testing.

Tricia Baker is the organization’s founder and executive director. She has taken AIR dogs to schools and colleges across central New Jersey. Baker and her family started AIR after the death of her son Kenny, who was weeks from graduating when, suffering from depression, he ended his own life.

Since then, AIR has gone on to provide a variety of mental health services, including Paws For Minds, such as the Coming Up For AIR program, whose aim is to educate youth about good mental health and suicide prevention, a tough topic to address. AIR always brings certified therapy dogs to those sessions to help the students relax and hear the tough message of suicide prevention.

AIR also utilizes the dogs for its Mindfullness program, in which younger students sit on the floor petting dogs, as AIR staff discuss stress and coping mechanisms. “Petting the dog allows students to open up and share things that may be worrying them — lack of sleep, too much stress at school, feeling that they are letting down their parents,” Baker says. “By the students talking openly, it alerts counselors to the students who will need follow up counseling.”

Baker was at CHS on June 16 to see the students react to the visiting pooches firsthand.

“There are many smiles. Students rush to say hello to the dogs and share that I ‘made their day!’ she says. She remembers once being at a school where a student who was allergic to dogs could not stop himself from petting them. Afterward, he had to go to the school nurse to take some medicine.

Looking at a dog releases oxytocin, which is the relationship hormone, in the brain, Baker says. Petting a dog releases seratonin and dopamine, which are de-stressing brain chemicals. Petting a dog can also lower a person’s cortisol level. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. “There are many physiological reasons why dogs help us to feel good,” she says.

Christine Abrahams is supervisor of K-12 school counseling services for the Hopewell Valley school district. She’s seen firsthand the benefits that pups can provide in the right situations.

She remembers a day a few years ago a day when a student in distress was in the main office talking to a school counselor. As it happened, an ex-student had stopped by the office with a poodle. The student in distress asked if she could hold the dog.

“She started petting the dog and calmed completely down,” Abrahams says. “After a few minutes she said, ‘Can I go back to class?’ After that I went straight to Dr. Smith (Thomas Smith, superintendent of schools) and said, ‘Can we get therapy dogs in here?”

Abrahams says feedback from teachers has been positive as well. “The ones I’ve spoken to have said, ‘This is so great, I wish I could have one in my classroom,” she says.

Abrahams sees therapy dogs as an example of changing attitudes about mental health in schools. “It’s not stigmatized any more,” she says. “Counselors and therapists are third parties you can go to and speak about what’s on your mind.”

Even the role of professionals like Abrahams has changed. “We’re no longer guidance counselors, we’re school counselors now,” she says. “We’re responsible for students’ social and emotional well being as well as academic well being.”

Abrahams says the schools have made many changes over the years with students’ well being in mind. For example, former principal Michael Daher made changes to the daily schedule at CHS intended to reduce student stress, including setting the day up so that students all shared one 45-minute lunch period at the heart of the day. “Kids couldn’t be with friends when lunches were separate periods,” Abrahams says. “Now they can go to clubs during this time, chill out, play frisbee on the front lawn. They have plenty of time to eat and socialize, meet with teachers. It takes the edge off the day all around.”

Smith says the national research is clear that high school students are feeling more stress than ever before, and the district has expanded its mental health support services as a result.

“The therapy dog pilot was an effort to further expand our supports to our students,” he says. “We have received positive feedback, and will likely continue next year.”