For Stressed-Out College Students, Petting Therapy Dogs Has Long-Lasting Benefits

Compared to other experimental groups, undergrads who interacted with pups experienced improved executive functioning skills

A photo of three adults sitting around a yellow labrador retreiver. The adults are petting and interacting with the dog while it lays on its side. Towards the left of the photo there is a camera recording the interaction.
Stress-relief programs that integrate therapy pets can help students relax as they talk and think about their stressors without overwhelming themselves and may be more effective at providing relief than academic approaches to stress management. Washington State University

Universities provide academic stress management programs and workshops to help students transition into college and manage the pressure of higher education. When finals season comes around, lots of campuses welcome therapy dogs to libraries and dorms for a brief reprieve from studying.

Now, a new study published this week in the journal AERA Open found these very good doggos provide students with stress relief benefits that can last up to six weeks. Compared to traditional stress management methods, students with high stress levels could think and plan more clearly after spending time with a therapy dog, reports Ed Cara for Gizmodo.

In recent years, therapy pets have gained popularity for their ability to provide comfort and support to those in hospitals and nursing homes. Various studies have shown that cuddling or interacting with a pet can decrease cortisol levels, a stress-related hormone, and reduce feelings of loneliness.

Study author Patricia Pendry, who studies human animal interaction at the Washington State University, previously showed in a 2019 study that petting a therapy animal for at least ten minutes could relieve stress in the short term. Pendry's study of 200 undergradute students compared cortisol levels in saliva samples from students assigned to watch the dogs versus those assigned to pet or play with them. Sure enough, the undergraduates who pet the animals saw their cortisol levels drop in the short term.

As a follow-up to the 2019 study, Pendry and her team designed a three-year-long study that tested a total of 309 volunteer college students on their executive function or cognitive skills like organizing, planning, concentrating, and memorizing. Before the experiment took place, each volunteer was screened on their stress levels and took a test measuring their executive function. A third of the total number of undergraduates were considered at high risk for stress based on their recent academic performances or reported mental health history, Gizmodo reports.

Each volunteer was placed in one of three experimental groups consisting of either stress management workshops, petting therapy dogs, or both, reports Stephen Luntz for IFLS. (Trained handlers are always present in interactions with therapy animals.)

The stress management workshop consisted of four weekly, hour-long sessions focused on stress prevention methods, like meditation and exercise. The therapy dog group pet and played with pooches while talking about their stressors or learning about stress relief techniques, Gizmodo reports. The volunteers participating in both experimental groups interacted with the dogs and attended stress relief workshops.

The researchers found no differences in planning and organizing between students who had low-stress levels. But individuals prone to high stress levels in the therapy dog group did see promising results. Compared to other experimental groups, highly stressed undergrads who interacted with dogs experienced improved executive functioning skills that lasted up to six weeks after the program ended, Gizmodo reports.

"The results were very strong," Pendry said in a statement. "We saw that students who were most at risk ended up having most improvements in executive functioning in the human-animal interaction condition. These results remained when we followed up six weeks later."

Stress-relief programs that integrate therapy pets can help students relax as they talk and think about their stressors without overwhelming themselves and may be more effective at providing relief than academic approaches to stress management, Gizmodo reports.

"Interestingly though, our findings suggest that these types of educational workshops are less effective for students that are struggling. It seems that students may experience these programs as another lecture, which is exactly what causes the students to feel stressed," Pendry said in a statement.

The researchers hope that their findings can be used to show that animal-assisted therapy can comfort and offer a variety of benefits to anyone struggling with stress and anxiety, reports IFLS.

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