Sometimes, research offers proof of something that was really pretty obvious, yet the finding can still produce some major consequences. This might be the case for the discovery that time spent with therapy dogs helps stressed college students think and plan more clearly, and the effects can last for up to six weeks. The way is open to the day when doctors will write you a prescription for cuddle time with a corgi, or a snuggle with a spaniel. Jokes aside, the study did reveal some surprising aspects, particularly how long the benefit appears to last.
Universities were once inclined to dismiss stressed students as not having the toughness to make good graduates, but thankfully times have changed. Stress reduction programs are now common, with opportunities to spend time with therapy animals instituted by almost 1,000 American campuses. Dr Patricia Pendry of Washington State University has previously shown just 10 minutes of petting dogs and cats can substantially reduce stress levels, and set out to see how well this works compared to more traditional approaches.
Dr Pendry and colleagues tested 309 university students' executive function, which covers “All the big cognitive skills that are needed to succeed in college,” including organizing, concentrating, and planning, she explained in a statement. The trial subjects were also assessed for the likelihood stress would cause them to drop out of their course, with more than a third considered at risk.
In the light of her past research (and everyday experience), it was no surprise that those who got to pet the dogs were calmer and performed better on the tests shortly after the petting sessions.
However, as Pendry and colleagues report in AERA Open, their findings went much further. The study went on for three years and looked at how long the benefits of hour-long weekly sessions lasted. After completing a four-week program participants were still showing measurable improvements in these cognitive skills up to six weeks later.
Students volunteering in the study were randomly assigned either to stress management workshops, a program of dog petting, or a mix of the two. The workshops taught skills such as meditation, relaxation, and avoiding negative self-talk. The animal stream involved sessions in groups of four or five playing with therapy dogs under the supervision of trained handlers while also discussing their individual stress factors. Not only did those in the dog-only program report less stress and do better on measures of executive function, but these differences could still be seen in the six-week follow-up. The traditional approach appeared to offer little benefits, but improvement in thinking clarity was substantial, and lasting, for those who spent time with the therapy animals.
"The results were very strong," Pendry said. "We saw that students who were most at risk ended up having most improvements in executive functioning in the human-animal interaction condition. You can't learn math just by being chill. But when you are looking at the ability to study, engage, concentrate and take a test, then having the animal aspect is very powerful. Being calm is helpful for learning especially for those who struggle with stress and learning."
It's important to note the sample group was overwhelmingly women, as well as being predominantly white and near the start of their degrees, potentially affecting how widely its findings can be generalized. Nonetheless, it adds to the evidence that while not a replacement for therapy for those who have experienced trauma, animal-assisted therapy can provide comfort and offer benefits for those under pressure by relieving stress and anxiety.