Paws for Thought: A Controlled Study Investigating the Benefits of Interacting with a House-Trained Dog on University Students Mood and Anxiety – PMC

1. background

College can be a very stressful time for students, especially when faced with a new environment as well as the social, academic, and emotional challenges that are part of college life. The transition from late adolescence to emerging adulthood is a key developmental period marked by new challenges, changing roles, and increased responsibilities [1].

For many students, moving to college is their first time away from home, and therefore they may feel homesick or have trouble adjusting while away from friends and family. First-year students in particular are more likely to face difficulties as they adjust to and learn to manage their new responsibilities. These new challenges can be even more difficult for those who suffer from psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression. college students have been found to have higher rates of psychological distress than the general population [2]. furthermore, students’ levels of psychological distress have been reported to increase significantly upon entering college and do not return to their pre-college levels throughout their time in college [1,3].

Reading: Do dogs help with anxiety

brougham et al. [4] examined stress arising from the transition to college life, sources of stress, and students’ coping strategies. Sources of stress include financial, academic, social, family, and everyday problems (for example, being late). avoidance, self-punishment, and self-help were just some of the coping strategies reported.

According to the American College Health Association, [5,6]), stress is the most common barrier to student academic success. the american college health association national assessment was used to survey american college students and students reported that during the past year, 58.4% felt overwhelming anxiety, 59% felt very lonely, 65% felt very sad, 37% felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function, and 9.8% seriously considered suicide [5,6]. Furthermore, according to the 2017 annual report of the Center for University Mental Health [7], 161,014 students from the 147 universities and colleges that contributed to the report sought counseling during the 2016-2017 academic year. the three most common psychological problems faced by these students were anxiety (62.2%), depression (49.7%), stress (45.5%). The report also indicated that anxiety and depression are the most common concerns (as assessed by clinicians) and are the only concerns that have shown a clear growth trend over the last four years, while other concerns appear to be stable. The report also indicated that for the seventh year in a row, lifetime prevalence rates of self-threatening characteristics (severe suicidal ideation, nonsuicidal self-harm, and suicide attempts) increased among students seeking treatment.

In another study, beiter et al. [8] studied stress, anxiety, and depression among college students. researchers found that 15% experienced anxiety, 11% struggled with depression, and 11% of students reported dealing with stress. analysis from the public policy research institute [9] suggests that, in the uk, between the years 2015–2016, 15,395 uk-domiciled first-year students disclosed a mental health condition that is almost five times the number reported in 2006-2007. In addition, the report indicates that between 2007 and 2015, the number of student suicides increased by 79% (from 75 to 134). the number of students who dropped out of college due to mental health issues increased by 210% in 2014-2015 compared to 2009-2010. Universities themselves also reported experiencing significant increases in demand for counseling services in the last five years, with 61% of those universities reporting that demand has increased by more than 25%.

Given these figures, it is clear that the transition to college can be incredibly stressful and, as a result, this population is particularly vulnerable to developing or exacerbating depressive symptoms [10]. With this in mind and the impact these issues can have on students’ academic success, there is a clear need to find ways to reduce stress and improve student health and well-being.

One way you can help is by interacting with animals. it is commonly reported in the media that owning a pet can have a positive impact on our physical health and well-being, such as increased physical activity, increased social interactions, and reduced blood pressure [11]. studies have also indicated that there are some psychological benefits to be gained from owning a pet. Over the years, research has shown that pet owners, and dog owners in particular, have higher life satisfaction, higher self-esteem, reduced levels of loneliness and anxiety, higher ambition, and higher moods. positive [12,13,14].

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animal-assisted therapy (aat) has been shown to improve mood in children and adults with physical or mental health problems [15,16,17]). there are also a number of studies demonstrating various effects of animals on self-reported anxiety in humans. however, the effects of pets on anxiety are mixed; some studies find significant effects and others do not find statistically significant differences [18,19,20,21,22,23,24].

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Occasionally reported by the media, it is the studies that have shown in some cases a negative effect. Gilbey, McNicholas, and Collis [25] administered the UCLA Loneliness Scale to 59 participants living in England who were interested in owning a pet. then, they reassessed the participants 6 months later and found that people who had gotten a pet (35 of 59) felt just as lonely as before they got a pet. furthermore, they were no happier than participants who had not had a pet. furthermore, another study in 117 older adults indicated that those who considered themselves extremely attached to their dogs tended to have higher levels of depression than participants who were not as deeply attached to their dogs [26].

bao and schreer [27] sought to explore general life satisfaction, negative emotions, and positive emotions through two questions and two hypotheses. First of all, is there a direct correlation to the happiness of the owner, whether or not they have a pet? second, whether there was a difference in happiness when dog owners were compared to cat owners [27]. There were 263 participants between the ages of 19 to 68 who completed numerous questionnaires, and the researchers found that there were no significant differences in measured happiness between those who owned pets and those who did not. The same analysis was performed for those who self-identified as cat lovers or dog lovers, and the results showed no difference in positive emotions or overall life satisfaction. however, those individuals who identified as cat lovers showed significantly higher negative emotions than those who identified as dog lovers [27]. therefore, dog visits do not always have a therapeutic effect and more research is needed in this area before benefits can be proven. however, while previous studies appear to have conflicting results, they do suggest that there may be numerous benefits of aat programs, including decreased depression and anxiety, and it is clear that much remains to be discovered.

Despite mixed findings of effectiveness, aat programs are starting to become increasingly popular on college campuses as they appear to offer an effective option for students struggling with anxiety and stress [28]. popularity is probably due to low cost. most college pet therapy programs are free to students and colleges, as most dog trainers are volunteers [29]). these programs involve bringing animals and their caretakers to campus to interact with students. a common format for university aat programs involves a large group of students interacting with animals during a single session [30,31]. The advantage of this format is that a much larger number of students can participate for a shorter period than other types of format that require a longer period of time [32] and require more resources, which have been found to have positive effects on the students. mental health and wellness. however, shorter sessions conducted in a group format could dilute the immediate and lasting benefits of such interventions.

Recently, empirical evidence has begun to emerge around the effects of the single-session format with therapy dogs. So far, studies have indicated that a single session of group therapy with dogs can increase students’ feelings of connection to their campus, temporarily relieve homesickness and stress [33], improve mood and well-being, and decrease anxiety [34]. however, the effects would appear to be relatively short-lived, as despite an initial recording of effects immediately after the therapy dog ​​session, no effects were detected two weeks after the sessions took place [33 ]. however, there is some qualitative evidence to suggest that students believe therapy dog ​​sessions provided lasting benefits when asked three months after the sessions [35].

In the United States, 96% of college freshmen were in favor of having a therapy pet program on campus [36]. It was also recently reported that 62% of universities surveyed in the United States reported having such programs, many of which exclusively involved dogs [37]. katcher and beck [38] revealed that interacting with dogs can reduce physiological indicators of stress, depression, and loneliness. Interacting with dogs has also been shown to promote fostering social connections with new people [39], as well as reduce anxiety and increase positive affect [40].

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A large number of college students suffer from homesickness, while for some this is only a minor problem, for others the homesickness can become so severe that they seek counseling [41]. The usefulness of aat as a treatment for homesick freshman college students was investigated in a recent study, where a treatment group participated in an 8-week program with trained therapy dogs and their handlers [32]. students were assigned a 45 min session on Friday of each week. during these sessions, the student would interact with an assigned dog for 30 minutes before being allowed to interact with any dog ​​present for the remaining 15 minutes. a control group with no treatment was told that they were on a waiting list and never received treatment. the findings indicated that the intervention was successful in increasing life satisfaction and decreasing homesickness.

Pets can supplement any family support a person is already receiving or provide support that is not being provided by a missing family member [42]. another study found that pets provide social support even for those who already receive support from others, and just thinking about their pets was shown to alleviate the effects of social rejection [43]. Additionally, Adamle, Riley, and Carlson [36] found that freshmen reported that their pets provided comfort and support during stressful times. Reduced levels of perceived stress have been found to be associated with increased happiness, and researchers have suggested that finding ways to reduce stress may facilitate interventions aimed at reducing depression [44].

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The impact that pets can have on stress reduction has been well documented. freshmen who were asked to watch a pet therapy presentation before they interacted with a therapy dog ​​[36]. the vast majority of participants said they missed their pets, that their pets had stayed home, and that they thought it would be advantageous to have therapy dogs visit campus and help with stress. The researchers also suggested that students may be helped to form new social connections with others by having access to therapy dogs. therefore, therapy dogs could also decrease students’ homesickness and perhaps allow them to make new friends and not just reduce stress. this in turn could lead to a more pleasant college experience overall. in fact, simply interacting with a dog in pet therapy programs has also been shown to positively influence the emotional well-being of college students, as well as reduce stress and help establish new relationships between students [45].

polheber and matchock [46] investigated various types of social support and their influence on stress reactivity among college students. participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: a new dog, a friend, or no social support during the experimental procedure. Participants were able to interact with their friend or the dog before the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) began; This test contains a numeracy and speaking task. during the trier stress test, the friend or dog stayed nearby, or in the case of the group without social support, they were instructed to sit down and relax. The participants’ cortisol levels and heart rate were measured throughout the study. The study found that participants in the dog condition experienced reduced heart rate and reduced cortisol levels during TSST compared to the other two groups that were not in the presence of a dog. in fact, those who were not in the presence of a dog were shown to have higher cortisol levels after the induced stress. the researchers reasoned that this finding was because other humans have the ability to perceive and judge their own friends, whereas dogs can provide a nonjudgmental support system for humans [46].

mcdonald et al. [47] tried to find a similar result to that of polheber and matchock [46] by examining the effects of a new dog on college students’ stress before exams. The researchers measured the students’ blood pressure levels before and after the experiment in two different groups, 15 minutes before a midterm exam. the first group was instructed to do any quiet activity of their choice, while the second group was allowed to play with a novelty dog. The researchers found that participants in the group that interacted with a new dog had significantly lower blood pressure levels after finishing the experiment compared to the control group. Interestingly, the control group’s blood pressure was found to have risen despite being able to engage in any quiet activity they wanted. mcdonald et al. [47] determined that exposure to any dog, whether trained or not, has the potential to reduce blood pressure levels, which may therefore lead to decreased stress in students [47].

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Animals have also been shown to have remarkable effects on the measurable physiological correlates of stress. recent research by somerville et al. [48] ​​examined the effects of physical contact with a dog and a cat on blood pressure and pulse rate among 62 college students (28 men and 34 women). participants who owned a dog or cat experienced an immediate drop in diastolic blood pressure. however, this reduction in blood pressure did not occur during contact with an animal, and instead only occurred after the contact had occurred. no significant gender differences were found, however, women had lower blood pressure than men [48]. Interacting with a dog has also been shown to decrease cortisol levels and thus indicate a reduction in stress levels in college students, who did not have a pet. however, this effect was not found for those students who had pets [49]. furthermore, immunoglobulin iga, which is another biomarker of stress, was not affected in either group of participants after interacting with a dog.

wilson [50] examined the effect of a pet on the psychological consequences of stress (i.e., levels of state and trait anxiety) of college students by comparing three test conditions (i.e., reading quietly, reading quietly, loudly and interacting with a dog). The study findings were that reading quietly and interacting with the dog affected anxiety levels. however, more effects were seen when reading silently than when interacting with a dog. no significant differences were found when examining the interactions between the variables. Although a decrease in anxiety level was found after interacting with a pet, pet owners did not report using their pet for social support significantly more than previous pet owners. furthermore, although the results indicated that participants experienced lower levels of physiological and psychological response after interacting with a pet, a similar effect was also observed when reading silently.

In addition to reducing stress, recent research has also shown that therapy dogs reduce anxiety levels in college students. Shearer et al. [51] compared the effects of interaction with a therapy dog ​​and mindfulness meditation on students’ stress and anxiety levels. While interaction with a therapy dog ​​was shown to reduce anxiety and stress levels, mindfulness meditation therapy reduced students’ anxiety levels more than sessions with the therapy dog.

However, the biggest potential downside to pet ownership, and thus long-term pet interventions, is the potential for the animals used to distract from school, work, and other important tasks. towers et al. [52] found that in their study, participants were distracted even by pictures of animals when answering questions on a math test. likewise, foreman et al. [53] in their review of the research saw the potential for these animals to potentially increase unsolicited social attention or cause a distraction from work tasks. however, these studies have suggested that the occurrence of a distraction might decrease as the dog’s novelty wears off, although more research is needed to show if this would be the case [52,53]. The other downside of using pets is the impact on the owner or client through loss and grief experienced after the pet’s death. The loss of a pet can be a tremendously emotional event and as a college student, this could cause a distraction from studies and social activities. furthermore, eckerd et al. [54] report that many bereaved pet owners experience symptoms of depression, numbness, crying, guilt, disbelief, or a sense of loneliness. Given the multitude of different feelings that can be experienced, in addition to the already stressful situations in college, students can easily get distracted from their priorities. this would also be counterintuitive since the purpose of this type of therapy is to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.

As noted, previous literature on whether pets can have a positive effect on human well-being is divided. Even less is known about the effect of pet ownership on anxiety and depression in college students and adolescents, as a substantial part of the existing research has focused on the effects of pets on stress in college students or has focused in the mental health of patients and the elderly. however, an increasing number of adolescents are affected by mental health problems, and the incidence of mental health problems increases during adolescence, peaking during early adulthood [55].

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