Therapy dog helps college students connect with mental health professionals

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Sopie the therapy dog: Credit Newswise

A new report highlights the role of therapy animals for helping college students combat loneliness and depression that is common. Lack of funding and shortage of mental health workers make it necessary to find new ways to help college students adjust. A new study finds having a therapy dog available helped college students connect with their therapist.

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The study, published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health was carried out by researchers at Georgia State University, Idaho State University and Savannah College of Art and Design.

Animal assisted therapy lowers college students stress levels

The study that was carried out among 55 college students in a small Southeastern arts college found a sixty percent reduction in self-reported stress and anxiety among participants that interacted with the therapy dog as often as desired for up to two-hours.

Therapy sessions were held twice a month for one academic quarter.

The dog, Sophie, was under the care of a licensed mental health professional. Students were permitted to brush, pet, play fetch, sit, draw, take photographs or just sit near the dog. Eight-four percent of studies in the study said Sophie was the most important part of their therapy.

Dr. Franco Dispenza who collaborated with lead study author Dr. Leslie Stewart of Idaho State said in a press release: "College counseling centers are also becoming more and more reflective of community mental health agencies."

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Students struggle with choosing academic programs, suffer from PTSD and other medical issues in addition to anxiety and feelings of homelessness, Dispenza adds.

Therapy dogs were shared by locals following the Newtown shootings and help kids heal.

Dogs help promote a connection between therapist and patient

Lindy Parker of Georgia State who also participated in the study said a therapy dog helps promote "...a therapeutic connection between the client and the mental health professional," more quickly and effectively. Parker adds establishing rapport is important for the therapeutic process.

Dispenza says dogs are ideal for therapy because they can tell when someone is sad. They have become so domesticated they seem to be able to read cues from humans. The study authors say animal assisted therapy could be a valuable tool for college and university counseling centers.

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