A group of University of Minnesota students flocked to scout out Cooper at the recreation and fitness center on a rainy day last week.

No, he’s not some studly Pilates instructor. He’s a beautiful golden retriever, one of many therapy animals the U provides to help reduce student and staff stress levels.

Four times a week throughout the U’s campuses, students can play and bond with dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, domesticated rats, even a miniature horse. While other schools may offer animals for stress relief during midterm and finals weeks, Minnesota is the only university in the country to offer a furry mental health break year-round.

In 2016, more than 8,500 students spent time with the animals.

“I’m a dog lover, and I come here every day,” said Melissa Foster, a junior studying kinesiology who owns a labradoodle back home in California. “This is one of the best stress relievers.”

Foster’s favorite dog is Dottie Pepper, a playful poodle who appears to smile at the students when petted. Several students fawned over the dog, who lapped up the attention.

The PAWS (Pet Away Worry and Stress) program is in its fifth year. It came out of the university’s annual Cirque de-Stress, another creative way the U offers mental health resources for students that involves, among other things, an actual group of circus performers.

The U brought in animals for assisted intervention, and officials were amazed at their popularity. That success led Dr. Gary Christenson, chief medical officer of Boynton Health Services, and others to pitch the addition of a weekly, independent animal stress release session.

The first day it was held at Boynton, more than 200 students showed up. “We knew this was going to be successful,” Christenson said.

More days and locations were added, first at the St. Paul campus, then at the West Bank campus and finally the rec and fitness center on the East Bank campus last year. Beyond the more than 8,500 students who visited in 2016, several thousand more interacted with the animals at special events around campus.

PAWS now is part of the U’s public health effort to help students take a self-care approach to mental health issues. Included are peer counseling, a 24/7 hot line, online therapy, staff training to recognize students in distress and therapy and psychological services, said Christenson.

All animals are registered therapy animals. The handlers are volunteers and get as much satisfaction out of the sessions as the students.

Nancy Skoyles Greenberg, Dottie’s owner, has recognized students who come back year after year. She was told by one student that “she was like a cool aunt.”

“It’s a mix of people,” she said. “Some are just missing their dogs, some want to share stories. I’ve had students come back to visit Dottie after they’ve graduated.”

Each location brings a different vibe, Skoyles Greenberg said. At the rec and wellness center, students dressed in street and athletic clothes come to play with dogs. The room is always full, regardless of the weather.

Law students on the West Bank asked for more than one day a week. “They never leave the law school building,” she said.

Across the room from Dottie Pepper was Andy, a do­cile Rottweiler. Maddie Espy couldn’t keep her hands off him, cooing, “You are such a pretty boy!”

Espy, a speech and hearing science major, had been studying for a quiz before taking a break because, she said, “It was PAWS time.”

The star of Monday’s session was 5-year-old Cooper, who at one point had eight female students loving him up. “This is so much better than walking a treadmill,” one of them joked.

Kathi Huenemann, Cooper’s owner, said the golden retriever loves to visit places where he can sit still and have people come to him. Besides the U, Cooper travels to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, high schools, juvenile courts and libraries.

“Having Cooper here is also a great way to lure my daughter over, who lives on campus,” she said.

In her spare time, Vibha Mavangi spends time with the dogs. Only 16, she is already taking university classes in biomedical engineering.

“I don’t have a dog, but I really want one,” she said.

Several students took selfies with the dogs before they left. One of the last to leave was Kelly Thomas, an academic adviser in the computer department. She loves the program and pins up PAWS trading cards in her office.

“How could anybody be stressed in a space with so many dogs?” she asked. “You might not have time to work out to reduce some stress, but you always have time to play with a dog.”