Is your student stressed? They should pet a therapy dog, study suggests

PULLMAN, Wash. — A new study from Washington State University shows that petting therapy dogs can enhance stressed students’ thinking skills and help with their planning skills. 

Researchers found that traditional stress management approaches – like lectures by experts and other workshops – are not as effective for stressed students in comparison to programs that focus on providing opportunities for them to interact with therapy dogs. 

The results came after researchers measured executive function in 309 students. Executive function is a term for the skills needed to plan, organize, motivate, concentrate and memorize. 

In the three-year study, students were randomly assigned to one of three academic stress-management programs. They all featured varying combinations of human-animal interaction and all of the dogs and volunteer handlers were provided through Palouse Paws. 

“The results were strong,” said Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development.  “We saw that students who were most at risk ended up having most improvements in executive functioning in the human-animal interaction condition. These results remained when we followed up six weeks later.” 

Many universities, including WSU, provide academic stress management programs and workshops, which tend to be similar to college classes where students take notes and watch slideshows. 

“These are really important topics, and these workshops are helping typical students succeed by teaching them how to manage stress,” Pendry said. “Interestingly though, our findings suggest that these types of educational workshops are less effective for students that are struggling. It seems that students experience these programs as another lecture, which is exactly what causes the students to feel stressed.” 

The research from WSU found that human-animal interaction programs helped students relax as they talk and think about their stressors. 

Petting animals was also found to help students relax and cope with these stressors rather than become overwhelmed. This helped exchange students’ ability to think, set goals, get motivated and concentrate.