Health

Students that pet, cuddle dogs have improved well-being and are less stressed, study finds

Teacher’s pet! Students that cuddle with dogs have improved well-being and are less stressed, study finds

  • Volunteers who pet a therapy dog reported improved happiness and social connectedness over those who interacted but didn’t touch 
  • Researchers say this is one of the first studies to show what interactions with dogs ‘provide the greatest benefits’
  • Petting was also linked to less stress, homesickness and loneliness in students
  • A growing number of colleges are instituting therapy-dog programs to help students deal with stress
  • Experts say the student-dog ratio should be low enough for all participants to get ‘hands-on’ time 


Petting and cuddling a dog can have a big impact on students’ well-being, according to new research from Canada.

Academics at the University of British Columbia divided 284 students into three groups: One could interact with a therapy dog, but wasn’t allowed to touch it, while a second group could both interact and touch their therapy dog. 

The third group, a control, met with a dog handler but no dog.

Before the experiment, the volunteers were asked about their overall wellbeing—including social connectedness, happiness, integration into the campus community, stress, homesickness, loneliness, positive and negative affect, and ‘self-perceptions of flourishing.’

All groups saw some improvement, but only the group allowed to pet their therapy dog illustrated major improvement in all the categories.

Touching, petting and cuddling dogs is key to getting the most out of canines’ ability to improve our well-being, according to scientists at the University of British Columbia 

‘There have been a number of studies that have found canine-assisted interventions significantly improve participants’ wellbeing, but there has been little research into what interactions provide the greatest benefits,’ John-Tyler Binfet, director of the school’s Building Academic Retention Through K-9s (BARK) program, said in a release. 

‘We know that spending time with therapy dogs is beneficial but we didn’t know why.’ 

In-person interaction, and especially touch, have been greatly reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Therapy-dog visitation programs are increasingly popular on college campuses and Binfet said they could be especially helpful for students who may be returning to in-person classes in the fall.

Volunteers were broken into three groups—one could interact with the dog but not touch it, another could both interact and pet the dog, and the third met with a dog handler but no dog. Only the ones who could touch the dog exhibited improvement in social connectedness, happiness, integration into the campus, homesickness, loneliness and other criteria

Volunteers were broken into three groups—one could interact with the dog but not touch it, another could both interact and pet the dog, and the third met with a dog handler but no dog. Only the ones who could touch the dog exhibited improvement in social connectedness, happiness, integration into the campus, homesickness, loneliness and other criteria

Earlier research by the department found that after a single drop-in session, students who participated in dog therapy reported significant stress reductions and increased levels of happiness and energy lasting for at least 10 hours.

Binfet added it was important to be mindful of the ratio of dogs-to-students, though, so that all participants can enjoy the benefits of touch.

The latest experiment, detailed in the journal Anthrozoös, follows a May 2021 study from Washington State University.

This research found that stress-management programs that focused on therapy dogs not only reduced students’ anxiety, but improved their executive thinking skills, too.

After completing a four-week program with animal therapy, students had improved cognitive skills, compared to others who were enrolled in stress-management workshops that didn’t involve animals.

The bump in brain power persisted for at least four weeks, according to their analysis, published in the American Educational Research Association’s journal AERA Open.

‘The results were very strong,’ Pendry said in a statement at the time.

‘We saw that students who were most at risk ended up having the most improvements in executive functioning in the human-animal interaction condition.’

A 2019 study by Pendry showed that petting animals for just ten minutes could reduce students’ stress in the short-term.

HOW DOES YOUR DOG CHANGE YOUR MIND AND BODY?

– Dogs have been shown to trigger the release of the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin in their owners

– The chemical lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and relieves stress

– Our canines also cause our brains to disperse the ‘pleasure hormone’ dopamine

– This boosts your mood and long-term memory

– Eye contact and touch are potent triggers of oxytocin and dopamine

– This means social dog breeds like labrador and golden retrievers are more likely to illicit oxytocin release

– Breeds that are more independent of humans like Great Pyrennes may bring out a lower oxytocin response

– Dogs we perceieve as aggressive, such as bull dogs or German shepherds, initiate the fight-or-flight response

– This triggers the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline

– These chemicals raise blood pressure and heart rate and can suppress the immune system long-term

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