Petting therapy dogs enhances thinking skills of stressed college students

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petting therapy dogs stress relief
Photo: Jozef Polc 123RF

Programs exclusively focused on petting therapy dogs improved stressed-out students’ thinking and planning skills more effectively than programs that included traditional stress-management information, according to new research from the US.

The study—published in AERA Open—demonstrated that stressed students still exhibited these cognitive skills improvements up to six weeks after completion of the four-week-long program.

In the study by researchers at Washington State University, 309 students were randomly assigned to one of three academic stress-management programs featuring varying combinations of human-animal interaction and evidenced-based academic stress management. 

“The results were very strong,” said Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development. “We saw that students who were most at risk ended up having most improvements in executive functioning (the ability to plan, organise, motivate, concentrate, memorise, etc.) in the human-animal interaction condition. These results remained when we followed up six weeks later.”

Many universities, including WSU, have provided academic stress management programs and workshops for many years. They’re often evidence-based courses that talk about ways to get more sleep, set goals, or manage stress or anxiety.

“These are really important topics, and these workshops are helping typical students succeed by teaching them how to manage stress,” A/Prof Pendry said. 

“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.”

Human-animal interaction programs help by letting struggling students relax as they talk and think about their stressors. Through petting animals, they are more likely to relax and cope with these stressors rather than become overwhelmed. This enhances students’ ability to think, set goals, get motivated, concentrate and remember what they are learning, A/Prof Pendry said.

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