Canine clarity: Petting therapy dogs can help stressed college students think clearly

PULLMAN, Wash. — There’s tons of stereotypes that college students supposedly fall back on during moments of stress. Coffee binges at the campus Starbucks. A wild weekend night to blow off some academic steam. Now, however, a new study has a cuddlier suggestion on how to relax during the semester. Researchers from Washington State University say support dogs can seriously help college students find relief from stress and anxiety.

Programs in which college students hung out with and pet therapy dogs during stressful times appeared to foster more positive mental health results. Additionally, they also improved thinking skills and clarity, in comparison to more traditional support methods.

Even better, the benefits these pups provided remained for up to six weeks after the four-week program had ended. Talk about making an impression.

“It’s a really powerful finding,” says Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development, in a university release. “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.”

Giving pets helps students plan and organize better

Researchers examined the executive functioning of 309 college students. In a nut shell, “executive functioning” refers to the ability to think critically, plan ahead, organize, concentrate, and memorize.

“All the big cognitive skills that are needed to succeed in college,” Pendry explains.

Study authors randomly assigned students to one of three academic stress-management programs. Each program included a variety of human-animal and more traditional approaches to academic stress management.

“The results were very strong,” Pendry adds. “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.”

So what can schools do to ward off student stress?

It’s becoming more and more common in recent years for colleges and universities to start incorporating stress-fighting programs and seminars for students. Most of these focus on ways to deal with stress in healthy ways, get more sleep, and set attainable goals.

“These are really important topics, and these workshops are helping typical students succeed by teaching them how to manage stress,” Pendry comments. “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.”

Our four-legged friends help us remember there’s an entire world around us, which includes adorable puppies. So, it’s worth taking a minute to stop and smell the roses (or paws).

“If you’re stressed, you can’t think or take up information; learning about stress is stressful!” Pendry notes.

“You can’t learn math just by being chill,” she concludes. “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 study appears in the journal AERA Open.