Therapy dogs can help boost college students' attention, memory and help them tackle stress

Human Animal Interaction

New research suggests animal-assisted therapy can be a positive stress management tool for students

New research from Washington State University with support from the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition has revealed animal-assisted stress intervention may help university students at high risk of academic stress and failure to concentrate, learn and remember information, as well as feel relaxed and accepted.

The results of the first-of-its-kind research were revealed today, July 3, at the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) conference in Orlando, Florida.

The students at high risk of academic failure and stress who only interacted with therapy dogs benefitted most from the intervention, compared to those who only received traditional academic stress management content or both.

The 12-week study evaluated 309 US college students who took part in one of three stress prevention programs featuring varying levels of exposure to animal-assisted activities. Researchers sought to discover whether, under which conditions, and for whom, a university-based animal-assisted program provides an effective approach to promote students’ executive functioning (attention, memory, self-regulation and improved cognitive function). Each program featured 4 weekly hour-long workshops, featuring academic stress management, motivation and goal setting, improving sleep and coping with test anxiety.

Lead study investigator, Associate Professor Patricia Pendry, from Washington State University commented on the promising results saying, “academic stress and associated negative impact on student performance is a significant issue for universities today and something we need to better address. While more traditional learning programs continue to play a role, the results of the study are exciting as they indicate this type of intervention can be a positive stress management tool especially for students who are at-risk of poor academic performance.”

“We know from previous research the positive effects of animal visitation programs on the mood of college students – and even recently discovered their positive effect on stress hormone levels. However, this is the first study to demonstrate that more frequent and regular inclusion of dogs can positively affect cognitive skills that may be more difficult to change with existing interventions,” said Associate Professor Pendry.

Study co-author and expert in Human-Animal Interaction expert Professor Nancy Gee said, "This study was informed by previous research and reinforces the growing body of evidence showing the benefits of pets for people in many different contexts and for at-risk groups. This type of animal-assisted stress reduction program is both easy to implement and low cost – offering a fantastic way for universities to support their students. After participating, participants feel calmer and more socially supported and this leads to an improvement in mental health and cognition. My hope is that evidence-based interventions which are already gaining popularity can become common practice in educational settings.”