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In March, vice-chancellor of The University of Buckingham, Sir Anthony Seldon, spoke out about the benefits of therapy dogs in schools during The University of Buckingham’s Ultimate Wellbeing in Education Conference.
Speaking about the addition of therapy dogs in schools, Sir Anthony said, “The quickest and biggest hit that we can make to improve mental health in our schools and to make them feel safe for children, is to have at least one dog in every single school in the country”. The first known therapy dog accompanied Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. From pictures and journals, Freud would often have his dog Jofi in his office during psychotherapy sessions. While the dog was originally only in the room as a comfort to Freud, who claimed he felt more relaxed when the dog was nearby, he soon began to notice that the dog also seemed to help comfort other patients during their therapy sessions (Sharon Paul).
Given the impact therapy dogs can have on student well-being, schools and universities are increasingly adopting therapy dog programs as an inexpensive way of providing social and emotional support for students. The role of therapy dogs is to react and respond to people and their environment, under the guidance and direction of their owner. For example, an individual might be encouraged to gently pat or talk to a dog to teach sensitive touch and help them be calm. Therapy dogs can also be used as part of animal assisted therapy. This aims to improve a person’s social, cognitive and emotional functioning (The Conversation).
Just with the presence of a therapy dog within the classroom, medical science has shown that a therapy dog can reduce blood pressure, promote physical healing, reduce anxiety, fatigue and depression, as well as provide emotional support. In research published in Stress and Health, researchers surveyed 246 students before and after they spent time in a drop-in therapy dog session. Students were free to pet, cuddle and chat with seven to 12 canine companions during the sessions. They also filled out questionnaires immediately before and after the session, and again about 10 hours later. The researchers found that participants reported significant reductions in stress as well as increased happiness and energy immediately following the session, compared to a control group of students who did not spend time at a therapy dog session. While feelings of happiness and life satisfaction did not appear to last, some effects did.
“The results were remarkable,” said Stanley Coren, study co-author and professor emeritus of psychology at UBC. “We found that, even 10 hours later, students still reported slightly less negative emotion, feeling more supported, and feeling less stressed, compared to students who did not take part in the therapy dog session” (University of British Columbia).
Patricia Pendry, from Washington State University, said her study showed “soothing” sessions with dogs could lessen the negative impact of stress. The study of more than 300 undergraduates had found weekly hour-long sessions with dogs brought to the university by professional handlers had made stressed students at “high risk of academic failure” or dropping out “feel relaxed and accepted”, helping them to concentrate, learn and remember information, she said. “Students most at risk, such as those with mental health issues, showed the most benefit,” said Dr Pendry (BBC News). It is therefore perhaps not surprising to discover that dogs are now being used in universities across the UK at examination times as a means of supporting students by reportedly relieving stress (Barker et al., 2016).
“The world would be a nicer place if everyone had the ability to love as unconditionally as a dog.” – M.K. Clinton
“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” – Josh Billings