“Therapy dogs” to help students overcome stress


At a university in the northeastern United States, a freshman says walking through the study advisor’s office, and being able to cuddle a dog, a Leonberger named Stella, is one of the highlights of her trip. daytime.

At a large public college in the Midwest, a graduate told me how much a dog helped keep his spirits up: “It was such a comfort to be able to pet this animal, especially when my family and my own dog started to potty. miss me ”, told me this young person who participates in my research on these new types of student support.

Each week, he and three comrades spent 35 minutes with what is now known as a “therapy dog” on American campuses, spending time petting him and giving him treats.

Another student in the same program told me that these moments were precious in preparing for demanding exams: “I felt like it allowed me to relax before stressful deadlines. ”

Such scenes are more and more frequent on the campuses of American universities. Faced with mental health problems that have continued to progress in recent years, universities have notably resorted to therapy animals, which students do not hesitate to come and see when the challenges of student life, in particular the personal workload , weigh on them.

As an expert in these programs – better known as dog-assisted interventions – I have studied how this contact with a pet can improve the well-being of young people. It shows that it helps them strengthen their sense of belonging , to better cope with homesickness and loneliness, while reducing anxiety and stress.

Some of these results can be explained by the way the human body reacts to interactions with therapy animals. A 2019 survey found that college students who spent even ten minutes petting a cat or dog saw their cortisol levels drop significantly.

Regular visits

According to a 2017 study of 150 establishments, 62% of them had an animal- assisted intervention program .

These programs are not organized quite the same from place to place. In some, a teacher and his animal come several times during the semester to the campus library. Then the students meet the dog one by one or in small groups, and spend between a few minutes and three quarters of an hour with him.

In other cases, things are more structured: a number of students are sponsored by a therapy dog ​​and their handler, and there are schedules to meet them.

The participating animals are of good temperament and well trained. The cost of registering them as a therapy dog ​​is low for owners. With the Pet Partners association, one of the most extensive, for example, it costs $ 15 to $ 30 to take the assessment, $ 95 to register with therapy teams and $ 70 to renew your registration.

The programs are coordinated by teachers or by staff from different departments such as psychologists or student services coordinators.

Positive testimonials

As I explained above, in my thesis , I asked a series of open-ended questions to young graduates to evaluate these interventions. Several people interviewed told me how much they appreciated being able to take this kind of break in their study schedule. “The experience forced me to organize myself better in order to be able to take this leisure time,” noted one of them.

“The therapy dog ​​is so calm,” said another. This mixture of energy and serenity helped me relieve tension with each session. “

This joy is shared because the dogs would just as much appreciate coming to spend time with the students. Many teachers have told me that their companions were excited when the date of the visit to the university came up, and even happier when they arrived near the campus.

Author Bio: Christine Kivlen is Assistant Professor (Clinical) of Occupational Therapy at Wayne State University