It’s no surprise that petting dogs and just being in their presence can do wonders for our health.
In fact, new research confirms what many psychotherapists suspected all along. Pet therapy works. And for college students, in particular, petting dogs can dramatically lower stress levels.
A study by Washington State University found that stressed students performed better academically after petting therapy dogs. Programs centered around lowering stress with therapy dogs improved students’ thinking and planning skills more than traditional stress-management techniques.
The study was published May 12 in the journal AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. The research showed that the stressed college students had improved cognitive function even six weeks after the study ended. The program lasted for four weeks.
“It’s a really powerful finding,” said Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development. “Universities are doing a lot of great work trying to help students succeed academically, especially those who may be at risk due to a history of mental health issues or academic and learning issues. This study shows that traditional stress management approaches aren’t as effective for this population compared with programs that focus on providing opportunities to interact with therapy dogs.”
The study showing how petting dogs can decrease stress in college students
First, the research team measured executive functioning in 309 students who participated in the study. Executive function includes the set of mental skills a person needs to plan, organize, motivate, concentrate, and memorize. Pendry says that to succeed in college, any student requires these “big cognitive skills.”
This study serves as a follow-up to prior research performed by Pendry. In the study, she found that just ten minutes of petting animals resulted in positive physiological effects. Petting and interacting with animals seemed to lower students’ stress, at least temporarily.
The study lasted for three years and involved students participating in one of three academic stress-management programs. They featured various combinations of human-animal interaction and science-backed academic stress-management methods. Palouse Paws, a local affiliate of Pet Partners – a national organization with over 10,000 therapy teams – provided the dogs and volunteer handlers.
“The results were very strong. 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.”
Many universities worldwide, including WSU, have provided stress-management resources and workshops to students. Typically, the programs involve listening to an expert, watching slideshows, and taking notes, much like a college lecture. They’re usually evidence-based courses that give students tips and advice about sleep hygiene, setting goals, and stress management techniques. While they provide helpful information, studies have shown that they aren’t always effective.
“These are really important topics, and these workshops are helping typical students succeed by teaching them how to manage stress,” 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.”
Rising stress and mental disorders in college students signal a need for intervention.
Petting dogs helps because of the human-animal interaction, which allows stressed students to relax. Even if students are thinking or talking about their stressors, being around animals creates a calming effect. It helps them cope with the stress in their life instead of feeling overwhelmed or defeated. Pendry says that it improves their ability to think, set goals, concentrate, and retain information when students are relaxed.
“If you’re stressed, you can’t think or take up information; learning about stress is stressful!” she said.
Of course, petting dogs doesn’t eliminate stressors. It simply gives students support and comfort, providing a healthy outlet for their anxiety or stress. Being around animals also encourages them to remain positive and motivated to achieve their goals.
“You can’t learn math just by being chill,” Pendry said. “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.”
The WALTHAM Human-Animal Interaction Collaborative Research Program provided a grant to help fund this study.
Other benefits of petting or being around dogs
In addition to lowering stress, dogs provide many other benefits to increase our well-being. Here are just a few: