PAWSing Student Stress

Therapy dogs offer university students love and support. They could be used to help combat growing mental health concerns in university, such as depression, anxiety, and stress, especially during exam time.

What is this research about?

Animal assisted activities (AAA) may help alleviate mental health issues on the university campus. AAA are typically informal sessions that use animals to enhance the quality of life. Although AAA are widely available on many university campuses, evaluations of these programs have been problematic because they lack clear statements about how the contents of the program is meant to achieve its goal. However, the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program has specific objectives that can be measured. The goal of this program is to offer students love and support from therapy dogs. Love is defined as loving the dogs and gaining positive feelings from their visit. Support is defined as de-stressing and relaxing by interacting with the dogs. The purpose of this research is to examine the immediate and long-term effects that the St. John Ambulance Dog Program has on students in a small pilot study. 

What did the researchers do?

The researchers at the University of Saskatchewan, University of Regina, and McMaster University examined the effects that the St. John Ambulance Dog Program has on students from those three institutions. 726 students in total attended dog visit sessions with 403 of them completing the required questionnaire at the end of the session. Questionnaires included  questions, such as "what was your reason for coming to the therapy dog event?", "are you glad that you came to the event, and why?", "what words would you use to describe your experience with the therapy dogs?" and "would you recommend the event to other students, and why?" They also included questions that asked respondents to identify,  on a 5-point scale, how the program influences outcomes, such as stress and anxiety. Dog handlers and observers at the event answered similar questions. The researchers then contacted 187 students three months after the sessions to examine the long-terms effects of the Therapy Dog program to collected information on what the students remembered about the event, how the event affected the way they currently handle stress, and the overall value of the event.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers found that:

  • Therapy dogs unequivocally offered love and support to students. Nearly all the students who attended the Therapy Dog event reported that they felt loved/comforted by the dogs. In addition, almost all of the students reported that the therapy dogs helped them to de-stress, feel calm and relaxed after spending time with the dogs, and not feel more anxious.
  • A higher proportion of females than males attended these events to reduce their stress. This finding, coupled with recent literature, raises particular concerns about the increased levels of stress female students may be experiencing.
  • The dog handler was also identified as a source of support for students at these events.

 

How can you use this research?

This research is useful to universities for many reasons. Universities can also use the results of this research to make decisions on whether they should offer a Therapy Dog program or whether they should continue their existing program. Schools can also consider how they can include the Therapy Dog program in their existing mental health services on campus. This can help schools provide students with a caring and supportive environment during stressful periods, such as during the exam season.

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