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Therapy Dogs Can Unite College Students and Seniors

Therapy dogs serve as social catalysts, bringing students and seniors together.

Key points

  • Many college students and seniors experience loneliness.
  • Therapy dogs can help reduce stress, a factor contributing to loneliness.
  • Therapy dogs can act as social catalysts, uniting people who might not otherwise meet.

College students face many of the same issues as the elderly such as living away from home, often leaving pets behind and adjusting to an impersonal institution.(Reynolds & Rabschutz, 2011)

In an initiative out of the University of British Columbia’s dog therapy program “B.A.R.K.”, an event has been resurrected post-COVID that brings together college students, therapy dogs, and seniors. Scheduled intentionally on Valentine’s Day, this event sees therapy dogs act as social catalysts bringing together volunteer undergraduate students and seniors in an attempt to bolster well-being for the young and old.

Amanda Lamberti Photography; used with permission
Amanda Lamberti Photography; used with permission

Attending college can be an exciting time for young people, however this transition is not without its challenges. In a recent systematic review, researchers Ellard and colleagues from the University of Warwick Medical School examined loneliness in college students and found high rates of loneliness reported across studies. Though rates vary from one study to the next, across surveys, college students report being lonely and loneliness has been found to compromise mental health and contribute to feeling stressed, anxious, and depressed. Loneliness has been defined as a subjective negative experience or realization that one has fewer social contacts than desired and absent or weak intimacy in the relationships already established (Yanguas et al., 2018).

College students are not the only population characterized by elevated loneliness; seniors too are known to experience loneliness. They too may face challenges as they transition from independent living to communal housing in retirement care facilities where they must establish new social networks. Therapy dogs are known to bring people together, uniting different people through conversation. We routinely see evidence of this during B.A.R.K.’s on-campus weekly drop-in event that brings 12-15 therapy dogs to campus to help reduce the stress of students. Skilled handlers facilitate conversations with the dog serving as a catalyst helping to identify common interests shared by visitors or providing a foundation for discussion as students learn about the therapy dog and the work the dog-handler teams do on campus. Introducing the B.A.R.K. program to a senior retirement facility provides an opportunity for volunteer undergraduate students to experience an aspect of life outside the campus and connect with members of the community they likely would not have an opportunity to meet. Gluing these two groups together are therapy dogs and their handlers.

References

Binfet, J. T., Passmore, H. A., Cebry, A., Struik, K., & McKay, C. (2018). Reducing university students’ stress through a drop-in canine-therapy program. Journal of Mental Health, 3, 197-204. doi: 10.1080/09638237.2017.1417551

Ellard, B. O., Dennison, C., & Tuomainen, H. (2022). Interventions addressing loneliness amongst university students: A systematic review. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, doi: 10.1111/camh.12614

Reynolds, J. A., & Rabschutz, L. (2011). Study for exams just got more relaxing: Animal-assisted activities at the University of Connecticut library. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 18, 359-367.

Yanguas, J., Pinazo-Henandis, S., & Tarazona-Santabalbina, F.J. (2018). The complexity of loneliness. Acta Bio Medica: Atenei Parmensis, 89, 302–314.

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