- Christine Kivlen is a clinical professor of occupational therapy at Wayne State University.
- She says therapy dogs can be a great asset on campus for improving student mental health.
- These programs are popular with college students as well as being inexpensive for school.
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At a private college in the northeast, a freshman student said it was the highlight of her day when she lay on the floor in her counselor’s office and cuddled with a therapy dog, a Leonberger named Stella.
At a major public university in the Midwest, a graduate student spoke about how a therapy dog provided much-needed relief there.
“What struck me is how comforting it was to petting the therapy dog, especially when I began to miss my family and my own dog at home,” the student, who is on a demanding health careers program, told me about my studies of therapy dog programs for doctoral students. The student spent about 35 minutes a week with three other students, all of whom were allowed to spend time with the therapy dog, petting her and giving her treats.
Another student on the same program said that spending time with a therapy dog helped prepare for high stakes tests. “It was always very nice to spend time with the therapy dog before major exams,” said the student. “I felt like I had time to relax before the stressful test.”
Such scenes are becoming more common on college campuses across the United States as college students increasingly turn to therapy dogs for comfort and cope with the challenges of student life – such as the increasing workload.
And as the demand for on-campus mental health counseling continues to grow, colleges are using therapy animals to improve student mental health. Therapy dog programs are made available to universities and their students largely free of charge.
As an expert in therapy dog programs – better known as dog-assisted interventions – I have researched how the programs can improve student wellbeing. Among other things, therapy dogs can help students gain a greater sense of belonging and better manage homesickness and loneliness while reducing their anxiety and stress.
Some of this can be explained by how the human body responds to pleasant interactions with therapy animals. A 2019 study found that college students who spent just 10 minutes petting a dog or cat had significantly decreased levels of cortisol, which is known to indicate stress.
Animals on campus
In 2017, a survey of more than 150 facilities found that 62% of schools had an animal-assisted intervention program.
Dog therapy programs look different in every facility. In some programs, some therapy dogs and their handlers may casually visit the library a few times during the semester.
In this setting, the students can approach the therapy dogs individually or in small groups. The time students spend with the therapy dog can vary from a few minutes to 45 minutes.
Other programs are more structured and involve scheduled times with a specific number of students paired with an assigned therapy dog and handler.
Inexpensive for dog owners
The costs of registering a dog as a therapy dog are relatively low for the owner.
The programs are usually coordinated by university staff or faculty members in different departments, such as occupational therapy, psychology or counseling, or by an activity coordinator in the student unions. The dogs are typically pets with good temperaments and training. The dog handler bears the fees for the registration of the dog handler team through a company that offers the registration of therapy dogs. The dog handlers pay the fees because they enjoy the animal-assisted intervention.
Through Pet Partners, a popular animal-assisted intervention company, it costs the handler $ 15-30 to evaluate a canine / canine team, $ 95 to register the therapy dog team, and $ 70 to renew every subsequent year.
In my dissertation on animal-assisted interventions, I asked doctoral students participating in therapy dog programs a number of open questions.
Several students reported how pleasant it was to take a scheduled break from schoolwork. “Experience forced me to take my time and devote it to non-study,” wrote one student.
“The therapy dog is so calm,” wrote another student. “Your energy / languor helped me calm down every session.”
Not only did the students enjoy spending time with the therapy dogs, but the therapy dogs also seemed to enjoy spending time with the students. Many handlers told me that their dogs were much more excited about going to college on the morning of their scheduled day. They also reported that their dogs were even more excited when they got to campus.
Christine Kivlen, Assistant Professor (Clinical) of Occupational Therapy, Wayne State University