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.

Being calm is helpful for learning, especially for those who struggle with stress.

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.

“It’s a really powerful finding. Universities are doing a lot of great work trying to help students succeed academically, especially those who may be at risk due to a history of mental health issues or academic and learning issues,” researcher, Patricia Pendry, an associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development, said in a statement. “This study shows that traditional stress management approaches aren’t as effective for this population compared with programs that focus on providing opportunities to interact with therapy dogs.”

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.”

The researchers found that the pleasure students got from petting a dog and the animal’s enjoyment of the attention helped them remain calm as they discussed their stress. It made them more able to relax, and less likely to become overwhelmed. That left these students better able to think, set goals, get motivated, concentrate, and remember what they are learning, Pendry said.

“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:

For more information on pet therapy organizations, visit the Therapy Dog Alliance.