WEST HARTFORD — Students took a detour between classes at Conard High School Thursday for some furry, tail-wagging stress relief.
"We'd always been taught how to prioritize our time, and study skills, but we'd never been taught stress relief," said senior Morgan Chase.
Chase was one of three students in a global problem-solving class who decided to tackle stress as their final project, which culminated in a collaboration with the "Tails of Joy" therapy dog group of Manchester.
On Thursday, five therapy dogs and their handlers visited the school, shielded from a sudden downpour by tents because the dogs were not allowed inside.
Students who had recently taken their advanced placement tests and had parental permission dashed outside in the rain and spent a few minutes petting the dogs before returning to class.
Social studies teacher Rich Mabey said his class focused in its first semester on how and why global issues develop, and the second semester on making a hands-on attempt at solving issues locally.
Groups of students did projects on everything from bullying and water pollution to urban education reform and female circumcision.
The stress group, with Chase, Eamonn D'Arcy, and Zach Hilborn, looked at how stress affects health. Mabey said the students focused on finding positive ways for teens to soothe themselves, rather than turning to drugs and alcohol or losing themselves in video games.
"They did a lot of research on student stress," Mabey said. "It's a pretty amazing connection they were able to make and I'm very proud of these guys."
In terms of the therapy dog program, "colleges are already doing that and it's a great idea," D'Arcy said. "Conard is already a great school and we're looking for ways to make it better."
Hilborn said the post-test therapy dog session offers students an opportunity to decompress after a year of studying for high-pressure AP tests.
"We went with this because everyone seems to like dogs," Hilborn said. He added that studies have shown there, "is a chemical release in the brain when you pet a dog."
Daphne Wilcox, vice president of Tails of Joy, said the students "approached me and used me as a sounding board."
The biggest hurdle was working with the town's risk manager and getting insurance for the program, but "the kids wanted it and they jumped through the hoops of planning it and organizing it, and I think that is really unique," Wilcox said.
Handler Caroline Gaetano brought her yellow lab Finley, who is 1 1/2 years old and was registered as a therapy dog in April.
Gaetano has been a handler for about 10 years, and usually visits nursing homes and similar environments, but said schools are an excellent place for the dogs to help ease stress.
"There's great benefits," Gaetano said. "This is great work to be involved in."