Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Dogs & Mental Health

Mental health declined during the pandemic and interventions that improve mental health are important for individuals and society.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”  WHO also states that “mental health is the foundation for well-being and effective functioning for an individual and for a community.”

For people who like dogs, interacting with therapy dogs is an effective mental health intervention.  Prior research has shown that interacting with therapy dogs reduces stress hormones, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and causes the release of the bonding neurotransmitter oxytocin, assisting in the downregulation of the stress response system. 

Supporting college student mental health is important to student learning, academic success, and intellectual and personal development.  Stress can erode resilience and therapy dog visits are a low-cost stress reduction intervention.  Although therapy dogs have been coming to college campuses for many years as one way to support student mental health, researchers wanted to explore the impact on student well-being of being able to touch a therapy dog versus only seeing a therapy dog without contact with it. 

Researchers randomly assigned 284 self-selected Canadian undergraduate students (77% female, 22% male, 2% non-binary) to one of three groups: 1) a touch therapy dog intervention; 2) a no-touch therapy dog intervention; or 3) a handler-only with no therapy dog group.  Data was collected on participant perception of well-being (happiness, life satisfaction, and positive affect) and ill-being (stress, loneliness, and negative affect).    

Participants in all 3 conditions experienced an improvement on some well-being measures, but only those students who experienced direct contact with the therapy dogs reported significant improvements on all well-being measures.  Direct contact with the therapy dogs provided greater well-being benefits than either the no-touch therapy dog or the handler-only experiences.  The greatest benefits were improvements in happiness, stress, loneliness, and negative emotions.

Takeaway:  Petting and interacting with a dog can enhance happiness and reduce stress, loneliness, and negative emotions.

Follow Gabby, therapy Goldendoodle, and Boone, therapy-doodle-in-training on Instagram

In March 2022, Gabby and Debra qualified as a therapy dog team with Denver Pet Partners.  Last week, Debra brought Boone into the pack to train to become a therapy dog.  Follow the adventures of Gabby & Boone on Instagram at Instagram.com/debraaustin.

Well-being is a journey, not a quick fix

Sources

World Health Organization. Promoting Mental Health: Concepts, Emerging Evidence, Practice (Summary Report) Geneva: World Health Organization; 2004, at 13, https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/42940/9241591595.pdf.

Binfet, J.T., Green, F.L.L., and Draper, Z.A., The Importance of Client-Canine Impact in Canine-Assisted Interventions: A Randomized Controlled Trial, 35 Anthrozoӧs 1-22, July 6, 2021, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08927936.2021.1944558?journalCode=rfan20

Changwon Son, et al., Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study, J. Med. Internet Res., Sept. 3, 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7473764/.

Nancy R. Gee, Aubrey H. Fine, and Peggy McCardle, How Animals Help Students Learn: Research and Practice for Educators and Mental-Health Professionals 48, 102, and 107 (2017).

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