- College students can reduce stress through interactions with therapy dogs.
- Hands-on contact maximizes the benefits of interacting with therapy dogs.
- A 20-minute interaction with therapy dogs can bolster students' well-being, including a sense of connection to their peers.
Across North America, this month will see students returning to their college campuses. Many students have not been back since the start of the pandemic and for many first-year students, this will be their first foray into life away from home.
Even prior to Covid-19, being a college student was considered a stressful experience as students learn to navigate new academic and social expectations. Out of the purview of watchful parents, students are left to organize their time, prepare for and attend classes, and negotiate the complexities of communal living. Doing so can be stressful. Concerns have been raised over the mental well-being of college students and increasingly students themselves are understanding the importance of reducing their stress as a means of helping safeguard optimal learning conditions during their time on campus.
Complicating their stress reduction efforts, college students are known to be reluctant users of well-being resources, often claiming that they can handle their own problems or that they find booking appointments or long wait times a deterrent. Low-barrier opportunities for students to reduce their stress are especially appealing, as are interventions that are social in nature.
Therapy Dogs Help Reduce Stress On Campus
Post-secondary administrators are increasingly under pressure to ensure that students study and live in conditions that optimally support their mental well-being; the link between stress, mental health, and learning is now clearly established. Services in support of student well-being might include walk-in clinics, peer-support networks, and organized social and athletic events to help build a sense of community and fortify perceptions of belonging on campus.
A low-cost and low-barrier intervention that has proven beneficial in reducing stress and homesickness has been to afford students opportunities to interact with therapy dogs. Campuses across North America commonly offer canine stress-reduction programs as a means of helping students thwart mounting stress.
Study after study attests to the stress-reducing effects of college students spending time with therapy dogs, but little is known about the mechanisms within interactions that contribute to positive outcomes. A recent study that my colleagues and I published in Anthrozoos, a multidisciplinary journal exploring human-animal interactions, sought to answer the question — how important is touch when interacting with therapy dogs? Along with colleagues in the B.A.R.K. lab (Building Academic Retention through K9s) at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, we set out to discover if we could enhance a popular intervention known to support students’ stress reduction. We knew that spending time with therapy dogs was beneficial but didn't fully understand the role of touch in sessions — just how important is touch between students and therapy dogs during on-campus canine-assisted stress-reduction sessions? Turns out, it’s very important.
How Students Interact with Therapy Dogs Is Key
In a randomized controlled trial that saw 284 students and 24 dog-handler teams randomly assigned to 20-minute sessions in small groups, participants were assigned to a "direct touch," "no touch," or "no dog" condition, and the results extend our understanding of how students should be interacting with therapy dogs to reduce their stress (Canine Contact Study). Whereas the participants in the no touch condition were in ambient proximity to the therapy dogs but not allowed any physical contact, the participants in the direct touch condition were required to have contact with the therapy dogs throughout the duration of their visit (i.e., through petting, scratching). Care was taken to ensure that the same protocols were followed across all conditions including measuring the distance between participants and dogs.
Participants completed pre- and post-test self-reports of flourishing, positive and negative affect, social connectedness, happiness, integration into the campus community, stress, homesickness, and loneliness. The findings revealed that participants across all three conditions experienced enhanced well-being. However, only the participants in the direct touch condition reported significant improvements on all measures of well-being.
We can interpret these findings to indicate that even being in proximity to therapy dogs positively influences well-being, however, interactions through direct touch maximize these benefits. The findings hold implications for the organization of on-campus canine stress-reduction programs and for students themselves.
Advice for Students Heading Off to College
- Proactively develop a stress-reduction routine or regime.
- Take advantage of any programs on campus offering opportunities to interact with therapy dogs.
- When you go to these sessions, spend your time petting, scratching, and interacting with the dogs through touch. It’ll reduce your stress and increase how connected you feel to those around you on campus.
- Let the dogs be the catalyst to link you to others, as this will help you establish social connections and build your community of support.
Binfet, J. T., Green, F. L. L., & Draper, Z. A. (2021). The importance of client-canine contact in canine-assisted interventions: A randomized controlled trial. Anthrozoos. https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2021.1944558