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Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Can Therapy Dogs Help Students Handle Stress?

Please welcome today's guest contributor, Molly Crossman, a Graduate Student & Co-Director of the Innovative Interactions Lab in the Department of Psychology at Yale University. 

More than 925 colleges and universities have therapy animal programs for their students. The idea is that playing with a dog (or a cat, rabbit, bird, guinea pig, actual pig, llama, or rat—to name a few of the available options,) will help students cope with stress. But with record-high rates of anxiety and depression among students, can a few minutes with an animal really help? 

To answer this question, we did a randomized controlled trial (the gold standard for testing out new medical and psychological treatments). We randomly assigned 67 students and medical residents (who have especially high rates of distress), to either: 

  • Play with a therapy dog, 
  • View pictures of the same dog, or
  • Wait for a turn to play with the dog

Our participants ranged in age from 22 to 37 years old, and the majority (55%) were female. We used the State portion of the State/Trait Anxiety Inventory and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule to assess participants’ subjective experiences of anxiety and mood before and after participating. Both questionnaires ask respondents to rate how they are feeling at the moment, and both are well-validated for this purpose. 

 Photo: John Curtis/Yale Medicine
Dog: Finn (DYBID has to add that he's just the cutest! Look at those eyebrows!)
We found that interaction with the dog did reduce anxiety and improve mood for our participants. Participants who spent their time with the dog improved more than those who viewed (but did not interact with) the dog, and more than those who waited. In other words, as important as it is to take breaks, and as great as cute animal pictures make us feel, getting to interact with an animal is even better. 

Our study corroborates what many dog owners experience—playing with a dog really can improve mental health. But this evidence gives us something that our own experiences cannot. Our findings show that it is not just our high expectations that make therapy animals seem effective. In our study, less than 10 minutes with a therapy dog produced improvement on measures of real clinical symptoms, and that change was not just about taking a break from work.  

The Role of Therapy Animals in Combating Student Stress 
Our findings are important because student stress has reached a crisis point. Over 50% of college students have symptoms of depression, and 11% have thoughts of suicide. Of course, I am not suggesting that therapy animals will ever replace counseling centers on college campuses. On the contrary, therapy animals have already carved out a niche all their own. Therapy animals are appealing and students expect that they will help, therapy animals do not require appointments or commitments, and therapy animals can help many students in a small amount of time at little to no financial cost. In other words, even though therapy animals do not necessarily have a huge impact on every student, they are exceptionally well suited to make some difference for an enormous number of students. 

Graduate Student & Co-Director of the Innovative Interactions Lab 
Department of Psychology, Yale University 
Email: molly.crossman@yale.edu
Twitter: @mollycrossman

Reference
Crossman, M.K., Kazdin, A.E. & Knudson, K. (2015). Brief unstructured interaction with a dog reduces stressAnthrozoƶs, 28, 649—659.

For more coverage of this research, check out the Psychology Today post by Hal Herzog, ‘Stress Relief in Seven Minutes: Doggie Style. Do programs using dogs to relieve anxiety in university students really work?’ Nov 19, 2015