New study suggests dog can help college students

New research from Washington State University and Mars Petcare’s Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition reveals dogs may be a useful tool to help improve college student’s memory, attention and to tackle stress.

The results of the first-of-its-kind research was revealed this week at the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) conferences in Orlando, Florida.

There has been an increase in the prevalence in mental health symptoms in university students, with research showing a quarter of students who report experiencing high levels of perceived stress and various mental health symptoms in the last year.

The study examined the effect of participation in a four-week long, university based animal-assisted stress-management programme on university students and found that students who were considered at a higher risk of poor academic performance saw a significant improvement in attention, memory, self-regulation and improved cognitive function, when they received exclusive interaction with the dogs.

The improvement was not seen in students who participated in a more traditional stress management learning programme using lectures containing information about stress management or sessions that combined such information with lower levels of animal interaction.

Lead study investigator, Associate Professor Patricia Pendry, from Washington State University, said: “Academic stress and associated negative impact on student performance is a significant issue for universities today and something we need to better address. While more traditional learning programmes continue to play a role, the results of the study are exciting as they indicate this type of intervention can be a positive stress management tool, especially for students who are at risk of poor academic performance.

“We know from previous research the positive effects of animal visitation programme on the mood of college students – and even recently discovered their positive effect on stress hormone levels. However, this is the first study to demonstrate that more frequent and regular inclusion of dogs can positively affect aspects of cognitive functioning that may be more difficult to change with existing interventions.”

Study co-author and expert in Human Animal Interactions expert, Professor Nancy Gee, said: “This study was informed by previous research and reinforces the growing body of evidence showing the benefits of pets for people in many different contexts and for at-risk groups. This type of animal-assisted stress-reduction programme is both easy to implement and low cost- offering a fantastic way for universities to support their students.

“After participating, participants feel calmer and more socially supported and this leads to an improvement in mental health and cognition. My hope is that evidence-based interventions which are already gaining popularity can become common practice in educational settings.”