Therapy Dogs Are Effective for All College Students

4 min read
Vancouver EcoVillage

Vancouver EcoVillage

The appearance of therapy dogs on college campuses (especially around exam times) is becoming more common in North America. Interacting with therapy dogs is a popular way of reducing the stress of students attending institutions of higher education. There are many appealing aspects associated with such sessions, including that students typically do not have to pay a fee, there are no sign-up or appointment requirements, and the stigma often associated with people who need therapy is absent, since all they did was drop in to spend a little while playing with dogs.

Yet many studies have shown that having students interact with therapy dogs produces a number of favorable outcomes. The most significant of which is the reduction of stress and anxiety (especially that which is typically found in first-year students and during midterms and finals). There is also a reduction of homesickness and a boost in overall mood and happiness.

Is There a Problem with the Research?

Research on de-stressing sessions with therapy dogs initially focused on the question: Does it work? and the answer clearly seems to be: Yes. More recently researchers have been asking the question: How does it work? A new study led by Dr. John-Tyler Binfet at the University of British Columbia, Okanogan Campus, is now asking the question: For whom does it work? This question has been stimulated from the observation that more women participate in canine-assisted therapy sessions than other genders. Furthermore, a survey of 31 studies of the effectiveness of therapy dogs in producing positive outcomes seems to be characterized by a disproportionate number of females in the research samples, compared to males. Specifically, for these published investigations an average of 76 percent of individuals studied were female. In addition, there was virtually no indication of any non-binary people being included.

One of the reasons for the imbalance in sexual representation in such research is that most of the studies were conducted on college campuses where females outnumber males by 50 percent. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, almost 60 percent of college students were females during the last academic year, while only 40 percent were males. [No data was available for the number of individuals who identify their sexual orientation as non-binary or other].

Nonetheless, the group of researchers headed by Binfet reasoned that it was just bad science to generalize conclusions collected predominantly from females to all other genders without a proper experimental test.

A Gender Balanced Study

In this new study, 163 undergraduate university students were recruited. They self-identified as 49 percent women, 33 percent men, and 17 percent non-binary and other genders.

For this experiment, the student participants self-selected their gender cohort. They were assigned to a session that was composed of a group of three or four students and a therapy dog with its handler. Each session was approximately 20 minutes in length.

Prior to the beginning of the canine therapy session, participants were given a fairly extensive battery of tests to determine how much stress they were feeling at the moment, how homesick they were, how lonely they felt, the degree of anxiety that they might be experiencing, plus an inventory of the positive and negative emotions that they were currently feeling. After the therapy dog session, they were retested on these inventories. They were also given an open-ended interview asking the participants how the therapy dogs made them feel, and they were given an opportunity to evaluate the emotional impact of their experience.

Do Therapy Dogs Help Everyone?

When the research team analyzed the data they found, as expected, that there was a significant increase in positive emotions, and a reduction in feelings of loneliness, anxiety, stress, and homesickness. Overall, the brief therapy session produced an increase in optimism, the students felt more socially connected and generally happier.

When we look at whether gender or sexual orientation had any effect on the benefits provided by interacting with a therapy dog, we find that all genders were affected in a virtually identical manner. Specifically, the authors conclude: “Certainly, a key finding arising from our study is that there were no significant gender differences in well-being outcomes after participation in a CAI [canine-assisted intervention].”

They go on to say: “This was especially notable for the gender-diverse students who shared that they found the community and climate within this session to be a space that was comforting, safe, and trusted.”

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

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