"There is no way that this is going to work," I thought to myself as I looked at the confusion around me. It was a large open room with a collection of sofas scattered about. A total of eight dog handlers and a dozen therapy dogs filled the room, with a therapy dog handler and one or two therapy dogs at each of the sofas. On the floor in front of each of them was a collection of perhaps four to nine students interacting with the dogs, while other students milled around the room moving from one group to another. With its population of nearly 50 or 60 people, the room was filled with many sounds of voices, laughter, and occasional squeals of excitement. It looked like a gala party, not like an intervention using therapy dogs to relieve stress.
Let me back up a bit to set the context of what was going on. It is a well-established fact that university students suffer from pre-exam stress around the time of their midterm or their final exams. So a number of universities have begun programs where therapy dogs and their handlers visit college campuses with the hopes that interactions with these dogs will help to relieve some of the exam-related stress in their students. At first blush, this makes very good sense since there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that contact with dogs reduces stress and that over the long term this can show up as a lower incidence of stress-related problems. However, in reality, the way that therapy dogs have been scientifically demonstrated to be effective involves a totally different type of setting. Therapy dogs are generally used in one-on-one contacts with the stressed individual, occasionally in interactions in small groups, or perhaps even having a dog live with the stressed person. However, there have been no large-scale studies that have demonstrated that a single contact with a therapy dog over a short time in a busy and noisy group setting is effective. For scientists this is worrisome.
Frances Chen of the Psychology Department at the University of British Columbia recognized the need for collecting data to see if therapy dog interventions of this nature on a university campus were really having the desired effect. She invited me (and my dogs) to be part of the research team. Although the concept behind such an experiment is simple—namely to expose students to contact with therapy dogs during times in the academic calendar when exams were usually being given, and then measure the effects and persistence of any emotional changes—however the administrative nuts and bolts required to actually put together such an investigation are complex as became apparent to Emma Ward-Griffin who took the lead in organizing the study.
The first thing that you need is a collection of therapy dogs and their handlers. For this, we were lucky enough to have the help of Quille Kaddon and the therapy dog teams at Vancouver ecoVillage. This is a non-profit organization that provides therapeutic services, including therapy dog sessions, and mental health wellness services. Each of these dogs has been certified and vetted by Marion Postgate who has been a dog obedience judge with the Canadian Kennel Club for several decades. Next, you need the actual physical venue on campus, which in this case was a large open lounge in a student union building provided by the Alma Mater Society of the University of British Columbia. The society also handled getting permission to bring the dogs into the buildings and all of that other required red tape.
The study was run during the midterm exam period at the university. The availability of therapy dogs on specific days was announced in several of the large psychology classes and students who expressed interest were given a timeslot to attend a therapy session. Most studies of the effectiveness of therapy dogs on stress have not been very large, with 10 to 20 individuals tested being the norm. By those standards, this study was huge in terms of the number of individuals assessed. Specifically, there was a total of 246 students tested to measure the effects of a single therapy dog exposure while 124 students served as a control group. The general setup was that students arrived at the venue and were given a short set of questionnaires to measure their mood, stress level, and current emotional state. Groups of students were allowed in to interact with the dogs and then, following something like 20 or 30 minutes of contact, they left the area and completed another set of questionnaires to measure their emotional status. Some 10 hours later they were re-contacted and again filled out the inventories which monitored their stress level. (The control group filled out the same series of inventories at the same time periods but without contact with the dogs. However at a later session they did get to be with the dogs—just so that they wouldn't feel cheated.)
As I said at the beginning, when you looked around the room it appeared to be somewhat of a chaotic meet and greet jamboree, rather than a stress-lowering therapeutic intervention. All of the interactions were unscripted, and students got to pick which dogs they wanted to interact with, and how they wanted to get socially involved with the dogs. Most of them spoke to the dogs, petted them, touched them, and some even went so far as to wrestle with them. The noise of the students talking to the dogs, the handlers, and the other people around them filled the room and made it very different from the kind of quiet settings where a single stressed person draws upon the empathy and support provided by the therapy dog to relieve their tension. I had no doubt that the students were enjoying themselves with the dogs, but rather had some real doubts as to whether or not this would actually provide any clinical relief for stress.
I suppose that as I watched the students socialize with the dogs it should have dawned upon me that when each student got involved with a particular therapy dog, their focus shrank down so that the outside chaos disappeared and it was just the dog's reactions and responses that mattered. Certainly, the data showed that the noise and confusion did not matter and the positive emotional effects were still present.
The data were completely unambiguous. There was an immediate large drop in the stress levels of the students following the therapy dog sessions. In addition, the students' level of happiness and how energetic they felt rose to a marked degree.
The next vital question to answer was whether or not these effects persisted for any significant amount of time. Most stress relief treatments such as meditation, relaxation, or exercise, have effects that last for a short period of time and decay in a couple of hours following treatment. So it was necessary to determine if there were residual effects from this single therapy dog interaction. I think that the entire investigative team was surprised and pleased to find that even 10 hours after the short session with the therapy dog, there were still measurable and significant benefits for the emotional state of the participants although the size of the effects had diminished since their contact with the therapy dogs. After this long delay, the students still reported somewhat less negative emotion, and they were feeling more supported, and less stressed, compared to students who did not take part in the therapy dog session.
So, in the end, the researchers were able to conclude that, "The results of our study indicate that therapy dog sessions considerably reduce stress and improve aspects of student well‐being." This was even though the therapy involved a single brief session with the dogs in a festival-like setting. You can find a video about the study here.
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Emma Ward-Griffin, Patrick Klaiber, Hanne K. Collins, Rhea L. Owens, Stanley Coren, Frances S. Chen (2018). Petting away pre-exam stress: The effect of therapy dog sessions on student well-being. Stress and Health, 2018; DOI: 10.1002/smi.2804