New research from Washington State University - with support from Mars Petcare’s Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition - has revealed that therapy dogs can improve the executive function and cognitive ability of university students at risk of academic stress and failure1.

For the study, 309 university students were randomly assigned to one of three four-week stress prevention programs featuring varying levels of exposure to animal-assisted activities and evidenced-based stress management content.

The research found that students who were considered at a higher risk of poor academic performance saw a significant boost in executive function including improvements in attention, memory, self-regulation and improved cognitive function when they received exclusive exposure to interaction with the dogs.

This improvement was not seen in students who participated in a more traditional stress management learning program using lectures containing information about stress management or sessions that combined such information with lower levels of animal interaction.  

Lead study investigator, Associate Professor Patricia Pendry, from Washington State University said:"Academic stress and associated negative impact on student performance is a significant issue for universities today and something we need to better address.

"While more traditional learning programs continue to play a role, the results of the study are exciting as they indicate this type of intervention can be a positive stress management tool especially for students who are at-risk of poor academic performance.

“We know from previous research the positive effects of animal visitation programs on the mood3 of college students – and even recently discovered their positive effect on stress hormone levels4. However, this is the first study to demonstrate that more frequent and regular inclusion of dogs can positively affect aspects of cognitive functioning that may be more difficult to change with existing interventions."

Study co-author and expert in Human-Animal Interaction expert Professor Nancy Gee said: "This study was informed by previous research and reinforces the growing body of evidence showing the benefits of pets for people in many different contexts and for at-risk groups.

"This type of animal-assisted stress reduction program is both easy to implement and low cost – offering a fantastic way for universities to support their students. After participating, participants feel calmer and more socially supported and this leads to an improvement in mental health and cognition.

"My hope is that evidence-based interventions which are already gaining popularity can become common practice in educational settings."

References:

  1. Pendry P. et al. Randomized controlled trial examining effects of varying levels of Human Canine Interaction and risk status on college students executive function. Abstract on file.
  2. Harvard. Study: College Stress. September 2018. Available here: https://hms.harvard.edu/news/college-stress Last accessed: 19 June 2019.
  3. Pendry, P., Carr, A. M., Roeter, S. M., & Vandagriff, J. L. (2018). Experimental trial demonstrates effects of animal-assisted stress prevention program on college students’ positive and negative emotion. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 6(1), 81-97.
  4. Pendry, P. & Vandagriff, J. L. (2019). Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial, AERA Open. Available here:https://doi.org/10.1177/2332858419852592 Last accessed 27 June 2019.

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