Not a Far-Fetched Idea: Therapy Dogs Improve Student Wellness

April 30, 2018
Amanda Carrozza

Amanda Carrozza is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.

New study shows the positive impact therapy dogs have on stressed students.

It’s not entirely uncommon to see therapy dogs walking the halls of universities and schools across the country. Academic institutions—and even some workplaces—implicitly believe that contact with a cheerful canine can almost instantaneously reduce stress levels among students.

And it turns out that they are right. New research reinforces that facetime with man’s best friend can actually enhance student wellness.

Study Design

In a study recently published in the journal Stress and Health, researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) surveyed 246 students before and after they spent time in a drop-in therapy dog session. During the sessions, participants had the opportunity to pet, cuddle, and talk to between 7 and 12 canine companions. Students were also asked to fill out questionnaires immediately before and after the session, and again about 10 hours later.

RELATED:

  • The Impact of Animal-Facilitated Therapy on Cancer Patients, Facility Staff
  • How Pets Can Help Humanize ICUs and Speed Recovery

In the surveys immediately following a therapy dog session, participants reported significant reductions in stress, as well as increased happiness and energy, compared to a control group of students who did not spend time at a therapy dog session. Benefits from the puppy play time were also equally distributed across both genders.

According to these results, single, drop-in, therapy dog sessions have immediate positive effects on student well-being, but that the effects after several hours are relatively small.

"Our findings suggest that therapy dog sessions have a measurable, positive effect on the well-being of university students, particularly on stress reduction and feelings of negativity,” Emma Ward-Griffin, the study's lead author and research assistant in the UBC department of psychology, said.

Similar Results

The UBC research echoes findings from a yearlong study conducted at Nova Southeastern University (NSU) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. During exam week, 29 students interacted with a group of dogs that included lovable golden retrievers, a German shepherd, a beagle, and a Havanese. A control group of 27 students did not have the opportunity to play with the dogs.

Afterward, both groups completed specific measures of stress, anxiety, and sustained attention. The groups also completed a speed-processing task to measure how quickly they could process simple information, such as looking at a string of letters and identifying which two matched or determining if two letters were the same.

Students in the group that interacted with the dogs had lower levels of perceived stress and anxiety. However, the group showed no significant improvement in cognitive function.

The researchers said next steps would be to examine a possible delayed effect of the dog-related stress reduction on a student’s academic performance.

“It’s possible that if we reduce stress, we might see an effect on an exam performance the next day, or just in the overall ability to study,” Jonathan Banks, PhD, assistant professor at the NSU College of Psychology who oversaw the study, said. “You might not pick up on that effect immediately.”