Soon after Community Therapy Dogs began, we recognized that there was a significant role for our dogs to play in helping to reduce people’s stress. This became very apparent in the school setting when I would talk to school Principals and they would openly say that their biggest challenge was student stress. So was born our “Caring Tails” program where students could interact with the therapy dogs in a calm environment and destress.
Scott Weybright, writing in The Bark, validates through his article “Petting Therapy Dogs Enhances Thinking Skills of Stressed Students” the effectiveness of interacting with therapy dogs in helping students relax.
Weybright writes: “Programs exclusively focused on petting therapy dogs improved stressed-out students’ thinking and planning skills, more effectively than programs that included traditional stress-management information, according to new Washington State University research. The study was published on May 12 in the journal AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. The paper demonstrated that stressed students still exhibited these cognitive skills improvements up to six weeks after completion of the four-week-long program.
Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development comments: “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. Pendry explains: The researchers measured executive functioning in the 309 students involved in the study. Executive function is a term for the skills one needs to plan, organize, motivate, concentrate, memorize: “all the big cognitive skills that are needed to succeed in college”.
In the three-year study, students were randomly assigned to one of three academic stress-management programs featuring varying combinations of human-animal interaction and evidenced-based academic stress management. “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. These results remained when we followed up six weeks later.”
Academic stress management programs and workshops have been around for many years. These are traditionally very similar to college classes, where students listen to an expert, watch slideshows and take notes. They’re often evidence-based courses that talk about ways to get more sleep, set goals, or manage stress or anxiety. “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.”
Human-animal interaction programs help by letting struggling students relax as they talk and think about their stressors. Through petting animals, they are more likely to relax and cope with these stressors rather than become overwhelmed. This enhances students’ ability to think, set goals, get motivated, concentrate and remember what they are learning,
There are many stress factors that students (and others) have to cope with in today’s society. It is so heartwarming to me that a “natural” way of dealing with stress, the petting of a dog, is recognized as being a valuable antidote to stress for so many.