Last month Oklahoma State University launched the country's most comprehensive university-wide pet therapy program, part of their commitment to be America's Healthiest Campus. Most schools bring in therapy dogs only at stressful times, such as finals week, but OSU's goal is to be more proactive.
I'd love to see more schools adopt similar programs, but they may be wondering, are therapy dogs a “nice to have” or a valuable resource for students?
Dr. Leslie Stewart of Idaho State collaborated with Georgia State University and Savanna College of Art and Design to explore this question. Dr. Stewart had seen the prevalence of anxiety, loneliness, and post traumatic stress disorder increase on college campuses, putting a strain on limited counseling resources.
In the study, 55 students were given access to animal-assisted therapy twice a month throughout the course of an academic quarter. In the group sessions, the participants were invited to stop by and interact with a German Shepherd named Sophie for up to two hours. They were allowed to pet, hug, feed, brush, draw, photograph, and play with the dog.
Dr. Stewart's team found a 60 percent decrease in self-reported anxiety and loneliness symptoms following the animal-assisted therapy. 84 percent said that their interaction with Sophie was the most significant part of the program for them.
This is a small study with self-reported data, but I hope this leads to more research in the area. While no one would argue the upside of having dogs on campus, having the numbers to back up the benefits will help more colleges secure funding for robust programs like OSU's.