Petting therapy dogs can help college students cope with stress

Dogs have been valuable in supporting firefighters during wildfire season and relieving loneliness for seniors, but these aren’t their only benefits. Now, a new study finds that petting therapy dogs can provide college students with stress relief benefits that last up to six weeks.

Coming from scientists at Washington State University (WSU), the research demonstrated that programs exclusively focused on petting therapy dogs not only reduced students’ levels of stress but also enhanced their thinking and planning skills.

“Universities are doing a lot of great work trying to help students succeed academically, especially those who may be at risk due to a history of mental health issues or academic and learning issues,” said Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development. “This study shows that traditional stress management approaches aren’t as effective for this population compared with programs that focus on providing opportunities to interact with therapy dogs.”

As mentioned by professor Pendry, some universities provide academic stress management programs and workshops but, most often, these take the form of sessions similar to lectures, which are often what causes the students to be stressed out in the first place.

As part of the three-year-long study, the scientists recruited 309 participants and measured their executive functioning, which essentially includes “all the big cognitive skills that are needed to succeed in college,” explained Pendry.

The researchers assigned the students to one of three academic stress-management programs featuring different combinations of human-animal interaction and evidence-based academic stress management. The results showed that students who were most stressed experienced the most significant improvements in executing functioning in the human-animal interaction group. What’s more, the effects lasted as long as six weeks after the program ended.

According to Pendry, animals help by letting struggling students relax as they talk and think about their stressors, thus enhancing their ability to think, set goals, get motivated, concentrate, and remember what they are learning. “If you’re stressed, you can’t think or take up information; learning about stress is stressful!” she said.

Original study: AERA Open — Incorporating Human–Animal Interaction Into Academic Stress Management Programs

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