New Research: Therapy Dogs Reduce College Stress, Improve Executive Functioning

Therapy dog
(Image credit: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay)

Patricia Pendry had long been intrigued by the potential dogs have to reduce stress. 

“We know, just anecdotally, and maybe even from personal experience, that engaging with animals can be very relaxing,” says Pendry, professor in the human development department at Washington State University. 

But at the same time, Pendry was skeptical of these observations. “As a scientist, I think I felt like the literature was often overstating the impacts of animals on stress and well-being,” she says. “So I really wanted to put it to the most rigorous test by one having random assignment to conditions, but then also not just comparing it to treatment versus non-treatment, but actually comparing it to something that we know from other work has been shown to be effective in reducing stress.” 

Pendry recently led research that followed these conditions and found spending just one hour per week for a month with therapy dogs led to a significant improvement in executive functioning for college students at risk of failing academically. Her study was recently published in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Unexpected findings 

Pendry worked with Alexa Carr and Jaymie Vandagriff at Washington State University, and Nancy Gee, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, to recruit 309 undergraduate students for the research. Of these,121 were considered at-risk academically, and had a self-identified history of academic failure, thoughts of suicide, mental health issues, or learning disabilities.

The students were randomly assigned to one of three four-week academic stress management programs consisting of an hour per week. One group interacted with therapy dogs and their handlers exclusively for the hour. A second group interacted with the dogs for a half an hour and received stress management information for the other half hour. The third group received traditional stress management workshops for the entire hour, and had no interaction with dogs. 

Only the at-risk students assigned to spend an hour with therapy dogs showed significant improvement in their executive functioning, a term for the skills one needs to plan, organize, motivate, concentrate, and memorize. 

Students not at-risk academically showed no significant improvement from any of the three programs, and neither did students assigned to be with the therapy dogs for only a half hour or not all. 

Overall, the findings were unexpected, Pendry says. 

“I was surprised that the regular evidence-based programs didn't have a greater positive impact,” Pendry says. “I was expecting that the exposure to dogs would be beneficial, but I didn't expect that it would be so much more beneficial compared with the incident prevention programs.” 

Key takeaways  

When you're conducting stress prevention programs, you want to consider the population that you are engaging with and possibly targeting certain individuals, Pendry says. “There's something unique about individuals who are at-risk and who already have a couple of risk factors associated with various mental health issues,” she says. “They don't respond in exactly the same way as people who don't have those risk factors. And in this case, they seem to be more perceptive to animals.” 

Given this, and that animals are a limited resource, Pendry says schools may want to be more targeted in their use of therapy dogs. “They're a very precious resource -- they’re live, sentient beings and we have to protect their well-being,” she says. “I would want to make sure people only draw them in and engage with them in ways that we know are beneficial.” 

She also cautions against reading too much into a single study. 

“The length of the program and what we did and how we did it, we know that that worked,” she says. “But we shouldn't just suddenly say, ‘Hey, we need animals on campus for everyone.’ We don't want to overstate our case.” 

Therapy dogs as ‘social lubricants’   

Past research suggests thoughtful use of animals in classrooms with younger students has a measurable positive impact. “Just their mere presence, particularly dogs, for younger children seems to be beneficial in a variety of different outcomes,” Pendry says. “There are some researchers who have looked at the impact of reading to a dog as a way to practice reading skills and overcoming that fear of reading in very young children, and found it to be very beneficial.”

While the reasons for these benefits are not always clear, there are some theories. 

“I'm a strong believer that through petting and touching the dog, there potentially is a release of oxytocin, which suppresses a stress hormone known as cortisol,” Pendry says. “And I think there is a temporary lowering of stress hormones in response to engaging with animals. We know that even just 10 minutes with a dog, reduces the amount of stress hormones that are circulating in the system.”

On top of that, dogs can act as social lubricants. “Being with other students in the presence of dogs, I think there's a sense of social support,” Pendry says. “It just puts everyone at ease. You're somewhat distracted and enamored with the animal, so maybe you let your guard down a little more, and you're a little more authentic, and everyone seems kinder.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.