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All about alpacas: more furry exam stress relief for students

From poodles to pot noodles - managing exam stress is more than just puppy rooms. Paul Greatrix rounds up the latest trends and looks at the evidence.
This article is more than 4 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

The examinations period in summer is often the most stressful time of the year for many students. Institutions in recent years have sought to support students in many creative ways to help them with stress relief at exam time – it all started with puppy rooms…

Dog-related therapy remains a very popular option in lots of universities as most recently at the University of Suffolk  where students are able to de-stress by spending time with a fluffy canine of some kind.

Some years ago USA Today carried a story about dog therapy in leading US universities:

Most notably Harvard and Yale, among a few others, have enacted dog therapy programs for students. While these calm dogs are normally used to aid senior citizens or people who are ill, colleges and universities have turned to these canines to help combat the immense stress facing the modern-day college student.

It turns out that cute bookable therapy dogs continue to be a core feature of student support. The University of Southern California brought in a goldendoodle to serve as an official wellness dog at the university’s Office of Wellness and Health Promotion. Closer to home, NTU have a dachshund in residence called Jimmy Chipolata who is a registered therapy animal and rewarded in cheese for his efforts.

Do puppy rooms work?

According to a recent EAB report there actually seems to be some serious evidence that the puppy room approach actually works:

“Bringing therapy dogs onto campus is a low-cost intervention that doesn’t have any side effects,” says lead author Sandra Barker, CHAI director and professor of psychiatry at the VCU School of Medicine. “This study should serve as encouragement for other universities to consider activities with therapy dogs as a way to help address stress before final exams” (Lukits, Wall Street Journal, 3/21; Dreyfuss, VCU News, 3/22).

The EAB report also noted that researchers were also looking into the effect of having therapy dogs present during final exams, and hoped to design a study that determined whether having a dog present affected academic performance. Dog presence may, of course, adversely affect as many students as it helps…

The full article is titled A Randomized Cross-over Exploratory Study of the Effect of Visiting Therapy Dogs on College Student Stress Before Final Exams, Sandra B. Barker , Randolph T. Barker , Nancy L. McCain , Christine M. Schubert and appears in Anthrozoös Vol. 29, Iss. 1, 2016. It  can be found here.

So it does look like puppy rooms are a positive cost-effective way of relieving students’ exam stress. Whilst there is perhaps an element of faddishness about this there is certainly a lot to be said for the approach and it does seem popular with students as well as having some genuine provable benefit. Be prepared for the backlash though. It’s possible that for every student looking to relax with a puppy there will be another one outside demonstrating against animal cruelty.


One of the best of all of these stress relief activities was the deployment by Roosevelt University and Northwestern University of miniature therapy horses on campus. Massachusetts College of Art and Design offered a “barnyard bash” to its students which included piglets, baby chickens, and kittens: “It was the first time they had turned to farm animals to offer students relief.” Right. And on the BBC site a whole ago there was a report on a wide range of stress-busting offers from universities around the country including micro pigs at Exeter and a Shetland Pony at Bath Spa.

Are there any animals which aren’t used for stress relief or therapy? Not many, as this recent piece on a big llama-based event at UC Berkeley shows:

On Friday, students flocked to UC Berkeley’s Memorial Glade for Llamapalooza, a human-llama social occasion on a sunny campus lawn. The eight animals were scattered throughout the crowd, munching grass while the adoring masses petted, fed and photographed them under the supervision of trained student volunteers.

Apparently, spitting by llamas is not common and generally reserved for disputes between animals rather than aimed at humans. And their fur is rather reassuring:

Many students took pre-exam solace in the llamas’ fur, lauded as “quite fuzzy” and “surprisingly soft”. “I want to pet them forever,” said Phoebe Kay, a junior from Australia.
But interactions weren’t limited to petting. Mancia taught the Guardian what is known as a “llama greeting”. The trick is to approach the animal nose-to-nose and “breathe the same air”, she said.

Meanwhile at Glasgow Caledonian University students enjoyed a stress-busting visit from some entertainingly named alpacas:

With the exam diet in full swing, students were encouraged to take a break from studying to meet Octavius, Spirit, Lord Farquaad and Dorrach from Netherfield Alpaca Trekking.
And they turned out in their hundreds to see the fluffy ‘therapets’ – who were only too willing to pose for selfies as well as dish out hugs and good vibes.

So we can now add llamas and alpacas to the pet therapy list.

Beyond animal therapy

Inanimate options are also available to relieve exam stress too. The full list of non-animal based stress-busting activities recorded here in previous years provides a handy relaxation guide:

    • offering smoothies and apples
    • yoga taster sessions
    • a health walk on the beach
    • Lego building and board games
    • A “marshmallow challenge” in which students try to build a tower out of marshmallows, dry spaghetti, and string.
    • Hogwarts therapy – Quidditch Ring Toss; Harry Potter arts and crafts; Lego Hogwarts castle-building; and Harry Potter-themed snacks
    • Play-Doh, coloring, and cookie decorating
    • Group knitting sessions, yoga and letting loose with a Muay Thai punch pad
    • A doodle board so that students can let off steam through art
    • A bouncy castle event
    • Chinese Brush Painting
    • a ball pool
    • egg and spoon race
    • free massages
    • karaoke booths (still only available in Korea)
    • an inflatable assault course (although this was not only concerned with stress relief but also flogging an “awesome” yet nutritious breakfast drink).

And the latest and most exciting support for exceptionally studious students in need of relaxation is, perhaps surprisingly, delivered via a vending machine.

We’ve looked before at the exciting opportunities offered by robot deliveries of food on campus and student-focused vending but this exciting development feels like a very British innovation – a Pot Noodle vending machine.


The machine will encourage students to use their noodle, testing them across a number of academic fields, from science to sociology – with general revision tips also included.
Answering questions will allow users to unlock free food, giving them the vital substance needed to help students make it through revision with a quick, easy and filling meal – appealing to all their instant noodling needs.
As well as dispensing free and tasty snacks, the machine will also give users the chance to win a month’s worth of tuition fees via a golden ticket found on the bottom of one pot.

And there’s more, including some of the “weirdest and wackiest internships in the world” on offer to students who take things a stage further as Lena Portchmouth, Brand Manager at Pot Noodle, said:

“At Pot Noodle, we’re always looking for new ways to help students make it, encouraging them to reach for their dreams.
“As exam season begins, there’s no better time for us to keep bellies full and brains ticking than with the world’s first revision powered vending machine.
“Not only are we hoping to help students’ power through exam season, but we’re hoping the internships on offer will help catapult them to the job of their dreams too.”

So, study hard, answer the questions correctly and, hey presto, live your dreams and enjoy free Pot Noodles! It doesn’t get better than this (unless you prefer llamas of course).

Finally, still popular, is the provision of large amounts of bubble wrap to burst as a way of relieving exam stress. According to one report some students claim that the “instant gratification of popping bubble wrap is a better relaxant than meditation or yoga.” However, more recently there has been something of a backlash against bubble wrap because of the environmental impact of creating more plastic waste in the name of stress relief.

Needless to say those cheerless contrarians at Spiked are against all of this kind of thing so there must be something to be said for it.

Leaving aside alpacas and bubble wrap the most sensible advice on exam stress and sources of advice and support remains the Student Minds website.

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