Students reduce stress with pets
By Anne Dreyfuss
A research team at Virginia Commonwealth University has found that students who visit with therapy dogs significantly reduce the students’ stress during final exam week.
The study supports the health benefits of interacting with companion animals. Researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Human-Animal Interaction have been producing influential data on the topic since 2001. “Bringing therapy dogs onto campus is a low-cost intervention that doesn’t have any side effects,” study author Sandra Barker, Ph.D., said. “This study should serve as encouragement for other universities to consider activities with therapy dogs as a way to help address stress before final exams.”
The study, “A Randomized Cross-Over Exploratory Study of the Effect of Visiting Therapy Dogs on College Student Stress Before Final Exams,” was published in Anthrozoos, the official journal of the International Society for Anthrozoology, on March 8.
The randomized controlled study investigated the effect of visiting therapy dogs on 78 college students’ perceived and physiological stress levels during the week prior to fall semester final exams. Students interacted with the therapy dogs for 15 minutes and spent 15 minutes in a control condition, which was a neutral setting without dogs.
“It didn’t matter whether they were in the control condition first or with the dogs first, there was a significant stress reduction with the dogs either way,” Barker said. While the study did not find a reduction in physiological stress indicators such as salivary nerve growth factor, it did find a significant difference in perceived stress.
“Perceived stress is an important indicator of stress,” Barker said. In previous studies, elevated exam stress has been associated with increased tension and depression, poorer academic performance and lower student expectations of their grades. Exam stress has also been negatively associated with immune function.
“Stress is a major problem for college students and exams are considered one of the major stressors,” Barker said.
Students visit with Bella, a Dogs on Call therapy dog, relax during a Paws for Stress session March 15 at the University Student Commons.