Almost anyone who’s seen dogs on their school’s quad can attest to the fact that dogs can brighten a person’s day, but a new study has shown that dogs can actually improve your overall mental health as well.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia assessed 246 college students’ moods before and after spending some quality time with puppies on campus. The study found that having an interaction with therapy dogs had a strong and immediate effect. Participants saw significantly reduced stress, increased happiness and energy levels, and improvements in negative affect, perceived social support, and perceived stress.
Therapy dogs are intended to aid in these areas by providing comfort and encouraging people to engage with them, especially through physical touch. Petting dogs and other animals influences an automatic relaxation response in humans and reduces feelings of loneliness and anxiety.
“The results were remarkable,” says Stanley Coren, one of the study’s authors, in Science Daily. “We found that, even 10 hours later, students still reported slightly less negative emotion, feeling more supported, and feeling less stressed, compared to students who did not take part in the therapy dog session.”
While the benefits of giving a therapy dog some TLC lingered throughout the day, the effects were more significant immediately after the interaction, showing that puppies would likely be useful at more stressful times for students.
“These sessions clearly provide benefits for students in the short-term, so we think universities should try to schedule them during particularly stressful times, such as around exam periods,” Frances Chen, another author of the study, tells Science Daily. “Even having therapy dogs around while students are working on their out-of-class assignments could be helpful.”
Therapy dogs have traditionally been used in nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals to help treat conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and PTSD. The rising use of therapy dogs in other settings, including college campuses, has increased the amount of research surrounding the actual effects these trained pups have.
Dog therapy has become widely popular in recent years, and there are now over 900 established animal visitation programs on college campuses — often to help with homesickness in addition to anxiety and stress. With this new information, therapy dogs might become a regular staple in the college experience, helping to reduce stigma around treating mental health on campus.