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At American University’s Kogod School of Business, students can hone their public speaking skills in front of nonjudgmental “audience dogs.” By A.J. CHAVAR and SHANE O’NEILL on Publish Date August 7, 2016. Photo by Jason Brandon.

By Nicholas Fandos, for the New York Times

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The two undergraduates were acing their presentation. Good cadence. Sharp slides. Sunny dispositions. But it was a tough crowd.

As the first slides flashed by, one audience member got up and paced the room. The other, breathing with conspicuous heaviness, rested her head sleepily on the ground. The students inflected their voices and gestured with gusto to regain their attention.

So it goes when your audience is canine — specifically Teddy, a Jack Russell terrier, and Ellie, a Bernese mountain dog. The session was part of a pilot program pairing anxiety-prone business school students at American University with amiable, if unpredictable, dogs.

According to promotional material for the program: “Addressing a friendly and nonjudgmental canine can lower blood pressure, decrease stress and elevate mood — perfect for practicing your speech or team presentation.”

The audience dogs, as they are called, are a pet project of Bonnie Auslander, the director of the Kogod Center for Business Communications, which helps students hone their writing and speaking skills. Given “the whole fever pitch of dogs in therapy” — pettable pooches routinely show up before finals on some campuses — Ms. Auslander decided to use dogs to help students with speech anxiety. The center booked about a dozen sessions last semester and employed six “locally sourced” dogs, recruited for their calm personalities

For now, evidence of the benefits is mostly anecdotal.

“It makes you smile looking out at the dogs,” said Jessica Lewinson, a sophomore who practiced a presentation on corporate responsibility in front of Teddy and Ellie. “It kind of gives you a chance to step back from your presentation, to step out of that track you get stuck in.”

And, she added, a dog is no more distracted than your typical college student. You might even get a lick.

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