Though no one may have needed a study to tell them this, new research has found that therapy dogs are indeed good boys and girls. The experiment found that these dogs helped sharpen the cognitive skills of stressed college students weeks after they took part in a petting program, to an even greater degree than other stress management options offered on campus.
In 2019, researchers at Washington State University published a study billed as the first test of therapy pets for college students. They looked at more than 200 students who were randomly assigned to different groups, each with a varying level of dog or cat interaction — some students got to pet the animals, while others merely were near them or watched them through a screen. They found that, based on saliva samples taken before and after the experiment, the students who actually petted the dogs and cats experienced noticeable drops in acute stress levels compared to everyone else.
The 2019 study seemed to show just 10 minutes of petting therapy animals could momentarily relieve students’ stress. But by the time of its publication, the authors were already working on a more extensive experiment — one in which students were asked to take part in a four-week-long stress prevention program filled with therapy dogs. The results from that study, published Wednesday in AERA Open, indicate that these precious pups can provide longer-lasting benefits, too.
The study, which took three years to complete, involved 309 student volunteers. Based on a screening survey, about a third were deemed at higher risk of stress, due to ongoing or recent academic performance or reported history of mental symptoms.
The volunteers were randomly assigned to three interventions, which each involved four hour-long weekly sessions focused on themes related to stress prevention or management, such as the importance of getting a good night’s sleep or how to deal with test anxiety. One group interacted with the dogs while doing things like peer counseling or learning about stress relief techniques such as meditation. In the second group, the students all participated in workshops on these themes, with no dog interaction. And the last group split their time between seeing the dogs and taking a shortened version of the workshops. Before and after the program started, the students also took a test measuring their executive functioning, or the ability to think ahead and plan out goals.
For typical students, there were no significant differences between the groups when it came to their executive functioning before and after the program. But the researchers also looked specifically at the students most likely to be stressed, and they found that stressed students who only went through the pet therapy program improved their executive functioning skills, compared to the other two groups of stressed students. What’s more, these improvements were still there six weeks after the program ended.
“For highly stressed students, it turns out that a fairly casual intervention, focused on engaging with animals, is surprisingly more effective than sharing a lot of research-based material on the effects of stress,” study author Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development, told Gizmodo by phone. “And that’s surprising because we might assume that stressed students actually need a lot of this scientific information.”
As anyone who’s loved pets may know, simply being in their presence can be calming. Pendry says it’s this calm that could be helping students think through their problems and take advantage of other resources like peer counseling without being overwhelmed. Meanwhile, the findings also suggest that strictly academic approaches for stress management could be counterproductive.
“The students who are already susceptible to academic stress, those are the students who are more likely to be sitting in a lecture, regardless of what the topic is, and to feel that anxiety. So these programs might just be too reminiscent of the classes that they take every day,” Pendry said. “And I think that prevents them from discussing and considering how they are feeling or how they can best cope with it.”
The research is the latest to bolster the reputation of therapy dogs. During the ongoing pandemic, nursing homes and hospitals throughout the country have (anecdotally) reported nothing but positive things about the benefits of their local therapeutic petting zoos for residents and patients.
That said, Pendry doesn’t want others to overstate her team’s findings. While the dogs in these programs are highly trained therapy animals, the services they’re typically providing on college campuses — briefly spending time with students and being petted by them — shouldn’t be considered therapy. And though her own past research has suggested that even 10-minute pets-and-greets can provide some benefit to the average student, she’d ideally want these programs to be structured toward reaching the people they’re most likely to help.
“If there are certain populations who can benefit, then by all means, let’s provide those interactions to them. And if there are large groups of people who are not necessarily affected, but it’s in the short term enjoyable, that’s fine. But we need to be mindful, because we don’t have endless amounts of therapy dog teams,” Pendry said. “I also want there to be respect for the animals involved. These animals are rare and precious resources, and we should treat them accordingly.”