Newswise — Washington, March 12, 2021New research finds that college students at risk of failing academically showed significant improvement in executive functioning after interacting with therapy dogs one hour a week for a month. Executive functioning is a term for the skills one needs to plan, organize, motivate, concentrate, and memorize—skills needed to succeed in college. The new study also found that struggling students who participated in traditional stress management workshops over the same period showed no improvement in these skills. The findings were published today in AERA Open, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Although animal interaction programs are increasingly common at universities—often for short visits in the week before final exams—prior research has shown little about which students benefit most from therapy animals or whether these animal interactions help more than traditional stress management workshops.

“It was very surprising to find that participation in traditional stress management workshops was less effective for at-risk students than providing interactions with therapy dogs,” said Patricia Pendry, professor in the human development department at Washington State University and lead author of the study. “We expected that teaching students ‘proven’ stress management and coping skills would be especially helpful for students with a history of mental health issues, learning or academic challenges, but found this was not the case.”

For their study, Pendry, doctoral students Alexa Carr and Jaymie Vandagriff at Washington State University, and Nancy Gee, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, randomly assigned 309 undergraduate students to one of three four-week academic stress management programs featuring varying amounts of exposure to therapy dogs and academic stress management instruction and activities. Of the participating students, 121 were considered as being at risk academically, based on their self-identified history of academic failure, thoughts of suicide, mental health issues, or learning disabilities.

Depending on which of the three stress management workshops they were assigned to, students either interacted with therapy dogs and their handlers exclusively for a full hour, interacted with the dogs for half an hour and received stress management information for the other half, or received such traditional stress management approaches exclusively for the entire hour without any interaction with dogs. The dogs and volunteer handlers were provided through a local affiliate of Pet Partners, a national organization with over 10,000 registered therapy teams.

Immediately following the program and again six weeks after the programs ended, only the at-risk students assigned to the program featuring interaction with dogs for the entire time showed significant improvement in their executive functioning. Struggling students who had interacted with dogs for only half an hour each week, or not at all, showed no improvement. Typical students—those not at risk academically—showed no significant improvement in executive functioning from any of the three programs.

“Our findings suggest that engagement with programs that focused on stress management information and activities were not as effective in improving executive functioning for the at-risk population,” said Pendry. “The presentations focusing on the role of stress in shaping academic challenges may have inadvertently increased tension in at-risk students and raised their anxiety and stress, which can interfere with optimal thinking, concentration, planning, and motivation.

“Interacting with therapy dogs exclusively may have distracted at-risk students from negative, stressful thoughts, allowing them to better control their moods and creating a calmer, relaxed state,” Pendry said. “It turned out that the relaxation itself, rather than the knowledge from the instruction, was most beneficial.”

In addition to feeling relaxed physically, the authors note that while interacting with the dogs, at-risk students may have felt an increased sense of social support or a higher quality of social interaction with peers and therapy dog handlers through their shared sense of enjoyment.

According to the authors, universities interested in helping at-risk students reduce stress should consider targeting their prevention approach and audience rather than assuming that the programs have a beneficial impact on everyone.

“While stress management programs play an important role on college campuses and are known to be beneficial for certain populations and specific outcomes, college administrators may consider providing at-risk students with targeted programs emphasizing interaction with therapy animals,” said Pendry.

Pendry also stressed that the results of this study should be considered with cautious optimism rather than as an endorsement to significantly increase animal exposure. “While these findings are promising,” she said, “it is important to replicate the results so we fully understand the underlying mechanisms before promoting widespread implementation for at-risk students.”

The authors note that their study provides initial evidence that may justify allocating funds to evaluate the feasibility of providing animal-assisted interventions on college campuses and to reconsider allowing animals in campus housing. 

This work was supported by a grant provided through the WALTHAM Human–Animal Interaction Collaborative Research Program.

Study citation: Pendry, P., Carr, A., Vandagriff, J. L., & Gee, N. (2021). (2021). Incorporating human animal interaction into academic stress management programs: effects on typical and at-risk college students’ executive function. AERA Open. Published May 12, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1177/23328584211011612

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About AERA The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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