Oct 22, 2014 12:01 AM EDT
Animal Therapy May Reduce Anxiety, Loneliness Symptoms in College Students
Animal-assisted therapy reduces symptoms of anxiety and loneliness among college students, according to a recent study.
Researchers at Georgia State University, Idaho State University and Savannah College of Art and Design found a 60 percent decrease in self-reported anxiety and loneliness symptoms following animal-assisted therapy, in which a registered therapy dog was under the supervision of a licensed mental health practitioner.
The prevalence of anxiety and loneliness on college campuses has increased, placing extra demands on college counseling centers. Budget strains have made it necessary for these centers to find creative ways to meet the needs of their students.
For the study, researchers held group sessions twice monthly during an academic quarter. Students were invited to stop by and interact with the therapy dog as long as they wished, up to two hours. They were allowed to pet, hug, feed, brush, draw, photograph, sit near and play fetch with the therapy dog.
Eighty-four percent of the participants reported their interaction with the therapy dog, Sophie, was the most significant part of the program.
This study suggests animal-assisted therapy could be an effective way for college counseling centers to meet the growing demands of their students. It is one of the first to apply animal-assisted therapy in a group, college setting and use a systematic form of measurement.
"College counseling centers are also becoming more and more reflective of community mental health agencies," researcher Franco Dispenza said in a statement. "That's something that's been noted in the field in probably the last 10 to 15 years. College counseling centers aren't seeing students struggling with academics, which major to pick or how to study. 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, such as poverty and experiences of homelessness, as well as a history of medical issues and family health issues."
To become a registered therapy dog, the animal and handler must complete a series of evaluations and courses, which involve their grooming, temperament, previous training and relationship with their handler. Dogs can be ideal therapy animals because they have become so domesticated and the seeming ability to read cues between dogs and humans is probably the most pronounced. For instance, a dog can tell when a human is sad, Dispenza said.
The findings are published in the latest issue of the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health.
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