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Therapy dogs benefit student well-being across all genders

A study from UBC Okanagan is providing new insights into the impact of therapy dogs and programs across various gender identities. 

Studying therapy dogs

The goal of the research, led by Dr. John-Tyler Binfet, was to determine whether the positive effects of canine therapy may differ across genders in a campus setting.

There is abundant evidence that dog therapy programs are beneficial for emotional and social well-being. However, most past studies were predominantly focused on female participants. 

The UBC Okanagan study analyzed the effectiveness of dog therapy programs among students identifying as female, male, and gender diverse.

Well-being resources 

“Facilitating access to on-campus well-being resources is important in light of the prevalence of mental health challenges faced by post-secondary students, especially first-year students,” wrote the study authors. 

“Supporting students’ well-being and reducing factors contributing to ill-being is paramount to reducing the risk of students dropping out or underperforming academically.”

Gender-specific study

Dr. Binfet has conducted numerous studies on the benefits of canine therapy, but to his knowledge, this is the first gender-specific study about canine therapy.

“Previous research has explored if it works and how it works, but not who it works for,” said Dr. Binfet. “This was one of the first studies that examined whether canine-assisted interventions work equally well for varied genders.”

The study participants were students who self-selected their gender group. Prior to the therapy sessions, they provided reports of well-being; specifically measuring their self-perceptions of social connectedness, happiness, optimism, stress, homesickness and loneliness.

Dimensions of well-being from therapy dogs

“For the purpose of our study, well-being was conceptualized as ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community,'” wrote the researchers.

“As this definition incorporates both positive and negative dimensions of well-being, we designed our study to incorporate aspects of both well-being and ill-being.”

A total of 163 students participated in the study: 49% women, 33% men, and 17% identifying as non-binary or other genders. These students, in groups of three or four, took part in 20-minute sessions with a therapy dog and handler. After their session, they filled out a post-session survey.

What the researchers learned 

The results showed a notable increase in overall well-being among participants and a decline in feelings of homesickness, stress, and loneliness. 

Furthermore, the positive impact of the canine intervention therapy was consistently observed across all gender identities.

“In light of previous studies that note participants were predominantly women, our sampling of men, genderfluid and two-spirit participants furthers our understanding that the efficacy of these interventions does not appear to be gender dependent,” said Dr. Binfet. 

“The vast majority of responses showed that the dogs helped the students feel and experience something positive regardless of their gender.”

The research may have profound implications for mental health and wellness programs at post-secondary institutions. As educators constantly strive to find inclusive, low-cost, and accessible solutions for student well-being, the gender inclusivity of canine therapy may be a promising resource.

The study is published in the journal Human-Animal Interactions

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