Give students' exam stress pause with paws

Just a few minutes interacting with therapy dogs can significantly reduce students' stress levels

Spending time with therapy dogs may help reduce students' perceived stress levels during final exam time, according to a new study from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). 

Researchers at the VCU Center for Human-Animal Interaction (CHAI) conducted a study to determine the effect of visiting therapy dogs on college students' perceived and physiological stress levels during the week before final exams. All students spent 15 minutes interacting with the dogs and 15 minutes in a control condition without any dogs.

Students' saliva samples were collected and analyzed for changes in markers of physiological and psychological stress. Students also reported their perceived stress on a scale from zero (none) to nine (severe). 

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Before the experiments, students' perceived stress levels averaged from seven to eight. After visiting with therapy dogs, scores decreased by three points on average. It made no statistical difference in students' perceived stress whether they interacted with the dogs first or took part in the control activity first.

Overall, salivary stress markers did not change significantly. It is also not clear how long students' perception of reduced stress after interacting with the dogs lasted.

CHAI researchers are currently looking into the effect of having therapy dogs present during final exams, and hope to design a study that determines whether having a dog present affects academic performance.

"Bringing therapy dogs onto campus is a low-cost intervention that doesn't have any side effects," says lead author Sandra Barker, CHAI director and professor of psychiatry at the VCU School of Medicine. "This study should serve as encouragement for other universities to consider activities with therapy dogs as a way to help address stress before final exams" (Lukits, Wall Street Journal, 3/21; Dreyfuss, VCU News, 3/22). 

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