There’s no doubt college can be stressful, especially for students who may be struggling with executive functioning skills like concentration, organization, memory and motivation.
The good news is that a remedy may be as warm and fuzzy as petting a pup. Pet therapy not only relieved students' stress, a Washington State University (WSU) study found, it also helped boost their ability to concentrate and plan.
Students’ cognitive skills showed improvement up to six weeks after finishing a month-long pet interaction program, suggesting the positive results, published in AERA Open, a publication of the American Educational Research Association, weren’t just a flash-in-the-pan. In fact, connecting with the dogs comforted students and helped them more than traditional stress management techniques.
Being calm is helpful for learning, especially for those who struggle with stress.
Over 300 students were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. All took part in academic stress management programs that were similar to college classes, involving taking notes and watching slide shows. One group did only this type of program; another also took part in human-animal interactions; and a third group was offered enhanced human-animal interaction that involved more exposure to pets and their handlers, provided through Palouse Paws, a non-profit organization that offers comfort therapy with animals to communities and organizations.
“The results were strong,” Pendry said. “We saw that students who were most at risk ended up having most improvements in executive functioning in the human-animal interaction condition.”
The transition to college can be rocky for students who find the academic pressure stressful. This has led many colleges and universities to offer often evidence-based courses that talk about ways to get more sleep, set goals, or manage stress or anxiety, as a way of helping students learn coping skills they will be able to use throughout life. The courses are similar to college classes, where students listen to an expert, watch slideshows and take notes.
“Interestingly though, our findings suggest that these types of educational workshops are less effective for students that are struggling,” said Pendry. “It seems that students may experience these programs as another lecture, which is exactly what causes the students to feel stressed.”
“You can't learn math just by being chill, But when you are looking at the ability to study, engage, concentrate and take a test, then having the animal aspect is very powerful. Being calm is helpful for learning especially for those who struggle with stress and learning.”
Pet therapy isn’t just for college kids. No matter what your age or life circumstance, there are dozens of ways animal therapy can help. Paws for People, a national nonprofit organization committed to providing therapeutic visits with people who would benefit from interaction with a well-trained loving pet, notes a number of benefits pet therapy has to offer:
- Improve cardiovascular health, including lowering blood pressure.
- Stimulate the release of endorphins that have a calming effect.
- Diminish physical pain.
- Raise spirits and reduce depression.
- Decrease feelings of isolation and alienation.