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Therapy dogs boost cognitive skills in college students

Therapy dogs can help stressed out students overcome pressure to perform better in college, according to a new study from Washington State University.

The researchers found that programs exclusively focused on petting therapy dogs improved thinking and planning skills among students more effectively than traditional stress-management programs.

The study revealed that stressed out college students exhibited cognitive skill improvements for up to six weeks after completion of a four-week-long program involving therapy dogs.

“It’s a really powerful finding,” said Professor Patricia Pendry. “Universities are doing a lot of great work trying to help students succeed academically, especially those who may be at risk due to a history of mental health issues or academic and learning issues.” 

“This study shows that traditional stress management approaches aren’t as effective for this population compared with programs that focus on providing opportunities to interact with therapy dogs.”

The researchers measured executive functioning skills in 309 college students. These skills are needed for planning, organization, motivation, concentration, and memorization, which Professor Pendry describes as “all the big cognitive skills that are needed to succeed in college.”

In a previous study, Professor Pendry and colleagues demonstrated that petting animals for just 10 minutes had physiological impacts that reduced stress among students. 

For the current study, students were randomly assigned to one of three academic stress management programs featuring varying combinations of human-animal interactions.

“The results were very strong,” said Professor Pendry. “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.”

For years, universities such as WSU have provided academic stress management programs and workshops, where students listen to an expert, watch slideshows, and take notes. The topics include getting more sleep, setting goals, or managing stress and anxiety.

“These are really important topics, and these workshops are helping typical students succeed by teaching them how to manage stress,” explained Professor Pendry. 

“Interestingly though, our findings suggest that these types of educational workshops are less effective for students that are struggling. It seems that students may experience these programs as another lecture, which is exactly what causes the students to feel stressed.”

According to the researchers, human-animal interaction programs help by letting struggling students relax as they talk and think about their stressors. By petting animals, students are more likely to relax and cope with these stressors rather than become overwhelmed. 

This enhances students’ ability to think, set goals, get motivated, concentrate and remember what they are learning, said Professor Pendry.

“If you’re stressed, you can’t think or take up information; learning about stress is stressful!” 

“You can’t learn math just by being chill. But when you are looking at the ability to study, engage, concentrate and take a test, then having the animal aspect is very powerful. Being calm is helpful for learning especially for those who struggle with stress and learning.”

The study is published in the journal AERA Open.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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