Could dog therapy be key to help failing students?

New research from Washington State and Virginia Commonwealth shows positive outcomes from robust interaction with animals.
By: | May 17, 2021
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According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 30% of college students say stress hampers their class work. For those who already may be struggling in their studies or affected by other variables such as the COVID-19 pandemic, academic achievement can seem out of reach.

Washington State University and Virginia Commonwealth University researchers point to “executive functioning” – the ability to concentrate, motivate, organize and memorize – as perhaps the key to unlocking the potential in those students.

One way to get them on a path back to planning well and learning, they suggest, could be through animal therapy. The concept has been around for decades, but a new WSU study shows how effective it can be when done well, compared with some other oft-utilized strategies.

In their analysis of more than 300 students, including 121 who were deemed “at risk” (academic failure, mental health issues, learning disabilities), the researchers found that those who were in a stress management program with high connections to therapy dogs were far more likely to see improved executive functioning over those who experienced limited contact with dogs or were placed in other programs.

“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. “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.

“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. It turned out that the relaxation itself, rather than the knowledge from the instruction, was most beneficial.”

Inside the study

Pendry, who worked alongside WSU doctoral students Alexa Carr and Jaymie Vandagriff and Virginia Commonwealth professor Nancy Gee to perform the study, found the opposite to be true.

For their research, they separated three groups of students into workshops that were four weeks long:

  • The first group worked exclusively with therapy dogs for an hour;
  • The second received the dogs for a half hour and received traditional stress management information for the other half hour;
  • The third got only received information to mitigate stress.

Students who were not considered at risk showed no negative or positive responses from any of the therapies. But of the at-risk students, only those who worked with dogs for the hour showed any improvement in executive functioning and it was significant. They studied subjects both immediate after the program ended and six weeks later. Study authors noted, too, that other therapies may be counterproductive.

“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,” Pendry said. “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.”

Although the research could be groundbreaking, Pendry cautioned that more work was needed to determine the efficacy of this type of therapy and that it was not a replacement for stress management programs on campus.

“While these findings are promising, it is important to replicate the results, so we fully understand the underlying mechanisms before promoting widespread implementation for at-risk students,” she said.

For colleges and universities wanting more information on initiating their own animal visitation program for those at risk, there are a number of sources to turn to. WSU and VCU utilized a national organization called Pet Partners that provides handlers and dog volunteers across a vast network throughout the United States and works with a variety of stakeholders, including higher education institutions. The organization serves at-risk students, veterans and those with disabilities and not just with dogs, but many other animals, depending on the environment.