Why Dogs Are Good for More Than Just Snuggling

New research shows that having animals on college campuses might ease students’ stress.

Photo by Sergio Buss/Getty Images

College students are under intense pressure at least twice a semester—during midterms and finals. And on top of academics, they can experience emotional stress from relationship troubles or as they adjust to being away from home. To help students cope, colleges have employed none other than man’s best friend—Harvard has Cooper the Library Dog, and Yale’s Medical School has a rescue mutt named Finn. Anyone who has spent time with a pup knows they can make you feel warm and fuzzy, and now scientists say that animal therapy might legitimately reduce anxiety and loneliness symptoms.

Researchers, led by Dr. Leslie Stewart of Idaho State, tested their hypothesis on a group of 55 undergraduates at a small arts college. They brought Sophie, a German Shepherd and trained therapy dog, to campus for students to pet, hug, feed, brush, draw, and play with. After spending time with Sophie, the researchers found a 60 percent decrease in self-reported anxiety and loneliness symptoms in the students. The findings have been published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health.

This study piggybacks on previous research suggesting that pets are hugely helpful in relieving stress. Earlier this year, a Harvard School of Public Health survey on The Burden of Stress in America found that 87 percent of adults who regularly spent time with a pet reported it was an effective method of stress relief. A 2012 study at Virginia Commonwealth University looked at how the presence of dogs in a workplace reduced employee stress, and found that dogs not only reduced stress, but also improved job satisfaction and coworker communication.

For college students, especially, the presence of therapy dogs can help counselors meet growing demand in a creative way.

“College counseling centers aren't seeing students struggling with academics, which major to pick or how to study,” researcher Dr. Franco Dispenza said in a statement. “They're coming in with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, pervasive mood disorders and considerable contextual strains that are happening out in the world.”