WEDNESDAY, May 19, 2021 (HealthDay News) – Help in difficult times: When it comes to dealing with the stresses of university life, new research shows that therapy dogs serve vulnerable students far better than stress management courses.
In the study, more than 300 Washington State University students were randomly selected to participate in one of three different types of stress management programs for a month. Each group met once a week for a one-hour session. Around a third of the participants were rated “at risk” by the researchers based on survey responses that showed they were dealing with mental health problems, learning difficulties, or academic difficulties.
The three programs gave the students different levels of interaction with therapy dogs.
“The main difference between them was the degree of human-animal interaction,” said study author Patricia Pendry, a professor at the Washington State Department of Human Development.
In previous research, Pendry found that just 10 minutes of petting a dog can work as a stress reliever for students, as measured by lowering levels of cortisol, known as the “stress hormone”. In this new study, she wanted to find out if prolonged interactions with therapy dogs could reduce stress enough to improve students’ thinking, learning, and time management skills.
The group meetings were similar to a typical college class – no dogs were present as a teacher presented research-based information on stress and coping, guided meditations, and other exercises related to stress management.
The second group received no evidence-based research on stress and spent their meetings petting and interacting with registered therapy dogs while engaging in exercises such as meditation and unstructured peer discussion.
The last group had a hybrid curriculum – they spent half of their sessions just like the first group with no dogs present and the other half like the second group.
The researchers measured the “executive function” of the participants before, immediately after, and six weeks after the program. Executive position is a collective term that covers many of the skills required for academic success, such as: B. Planning, organizing, taking care of and learning information.
According to the study, the program, which focused solely on petting and interacting with therapy dogs, resulted in the most significant functional improvements in executives among the more than 100 “at risk” students who were probably the most stressed.
“The students who were most likely to have difficulty coping with stress if they participated in the program that had only interactions with animals – these were the students who improved their leadership skills compared to” at risk “students in others Groups, “said Pendry.
Six weeks after completing the program, the improvements in executive function persisted.
The results were recently published online in the journal Aera Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
While the “typical” students or those not classified as “at risk” consistently saw improvements in how executives worked, it was not seen that one type of program was superior to another.
“It could be that their executive role as a group was already higher and there might be a ceiling effect or a tremendous chance of getting better because they were already working quite well,” noted Pendry. “The highly stressed students clearly benefited from the human-animal interaction.”
According to Pendry, stressed people find it difficult to perform many of the skills that come under the umbrella of the “executive function”.
While the mechanism behind the stress-relieving effect of spending time with animals is difficult to measure, most animal lovers will understand the general idea. Pendry said one theory is that dogs act as a kind of “social lubricant” and increase the wellbeing in any room. “They feel socially supported by others because everyone appears nicer, friendlier, and happier,” she said.
Amy Hrin, who has more than 20 years experience bringing therapy dogs to all kinds of people, including college students, veterans and hospital patients, said the new study was “true” with her experience as a therapy dog handler. She is the national director of military affairs and special projects at American Humane and was not part of the new research.
Hrin said that dogs seem to help people focus on something other than their internal stress and thoughts.
“Dogs are a great, happy distraction from our problems. I think they get you out of your head,” said Hrin. “And when you think of that particular population – college students who are away from home – and this is where they may have a chance to give and receive affection for this warm, kind animal. Now if you can’t have a hug from mom, this.” is the next best thing. “
Pendry noted that it also encourages student interaction, which can relieve stress.
“If you are already someone who has struggled with executive function and is stressed and has had challenges in the past, it is probably very nice to be able to talk to other students in a non-threatening, relaxing and socially supportive environment.” She said. “It’s different than sitting in front of a presentation and learning how harmful stress is.”
The US National Institutes of Health learned more about the health benefits of human-animal interactions.
SOURCES: Patricia Pendry, PhD, Associate Professor, Human Development Department, Washington State University; Amy Hrin, PhD, National Director, Military Affairs, Special Projects, American Humane, Washington, DC; AERA Open, May 11, 2021, online