- Many group therapy dog sessions have been cancelled due to the pandemic.
- Spending time with therapy dogs remotely or virtually does not relieve stress, research suggests.
- The more that participants physically pet therapy dogs, the larger the benefit to their mental health.
One of the unexpected effects of the social distancing restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic has been the impact on certain types of therapy dog interventions. The particular programs that have suffered the most involve therapy dogs in group stress reduction sessions where several dog handlers and therapy dogs are gathered together to provide a stress relief event for a large group of individuals.
This particularly impacts university students who suffer from pre-exam anxiety around the time of their midterm or their final exams. Normally a number of universities provide programs where therapy dogs and their handlers visit the college campuses in the hopes that interactions with these dogs will help to reduce exam-related stresses. Because of the current restrictions limiting social interactions to prevent the spread of Covid-19, such programs have been shut down.
However, a number of universities and other institutions where individuals are still suffering from stress have suggested that perhaps these forms of animal-assisted group therapy might be replaced by virtual, remote, video sessions with the dogs. Unfortunately, a new study coming out of the University of Winnipeg in Canada seems to suggest that this alternative form of stress-relieving therapy might not work.
The Many Benefits of Therapy Dogs
There is ample evidence showing that a single session of interaction with a therapy dog in a group setting has a persistent stress-relieving effect . However, this research involves sessions in which the therapy dogs are physically present and can be touched and interacted with. Of course in a remote or virtual therapy session, the ability to touch the dog is absent. One must not underestimate the importance of such tactile stimulation.
It was back in the 1980s when psychologists first began to seriously consider the usefulness of animal-assisted therapy. This came about when Alan Beck and Aaron Katcher provided evidence that showed that when people pet a friendly dog, there are immediate relaxation-related physiological effects. Heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, muscles relax, and breathing becomes more regular. More recently research has found that the concentration of stress-related hormones (corticosteroids) in the blood is reduced. An important factor here is that these effects occur when people actually pet the dog, thus providing a tactile link between the person and the therapy animal.
Testing the Effects of Virtual Canine Therapy
Laura Sokal and her team of Canadian researchers wondered what might happen if the physical touch component of a therapy dog session was removed, as it might be in a virtual or video therapy session. Would the stress reduction and positive emotional changes still exist if participants couldn't actually touch the dog?
By the standards of such research, this was a large study. It involved 242 college and university students. As is typical of many university student and therapy dog sessions, the study was conducted in a large university commons room. There were five dogs and handlers present for each session, and students were tested in a group.
Prior to any interactions with the therapy dogs, students completed some brief standardized tests which assessed their current level of stress, happiness, and feelings of well-being. Next, students were allowed into the therapy dog area and were allowed to observe the activities but were not allowed to touch the dogs or directly interact with them. Their emotional state was then remeasured. Afterwards the students were allowed back into the common room and allowed to interact with and touch the dogs for as long as they chose to do so. Following that a final measure of their stress level, happiness, and well-being was taken.
Physical Contact with Dogs Reduces Stress—Not Remote Sessions
The results were quite clear and unambiguous. The component of the experiment where the participants were allowed to observe the dogs, but not physically touch them resulted in a negligible change in the emotional state of the participants. However, when they were allowed to physically touch and interact with the dogs there was a marked and significant reduction in the students' stress level, an increase in their feelings of happiness, and also a positive increase in their overall experience of well-being.
Most importantly, the researchers were able to monitor the amount of time that the participants spent making physical contact with the dogs. Their analysis indicated that the positive mental health outcomes were directly related to the length of time that the individual spent in contact with the dogs. In other words, the more time participants spent touching the dogs the better they felt.
These new data clearly confirm that touch is a vital component of a therapy session involving a dog. It is as if the stress experienced by participants flows out through their fingertips when they stroke these friendly and sociable dogs. Unfortunately, this data also suggests that remote or virtual therapy sessions with the dogs do not produce any significant stress relief or emotional uplift unless we can find a way to also provide participants with a way of remotely experiencing the feeling of touching a warm, living being that is responding to our interactions.
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Laura Sokal, Brianne Bartel & Taylor Martin (2021) Effects of Touch on Students Stress, Happiness, and Well-Being during Animal-Assisted Activities. Journal of education and development, 5 (1) ISSN 2529-7996 E-ISSN 2591-7250