For Anxious And Lonely College Students, Therapy Dogs May Be The Answer

April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Therapy animals have been used to help the elderly with depression, autistic children with emotional attachments, and even mental health patients suffering from PTSD and schizophrenia with calming obsessive thoughts. A new study, published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, finds that animal-assisted therapy can help college students as well, by reducing symptoms of anxiety and loneliness.
The research team, which included members from Georgia State University, Idaho State University and the Savannah College of Art and Design, recruited 55 students in a group setting at a small arts college in the Southeast. They provided the students with access to animal-assisted therapy, finding that 60 percent had a decrease in self-reported anxiety and loneliness symptoms following the therapy.
The animal-assisted therapy consisted of interaction with a registered therapy dog while under the supervision of a licensed mental health practitioner.
The dog, Sophie, was considered to be the most significant part of the program, according to 84 percent of the participants.
During one academic quarter, the students were invited to twice monthly group therapy sessions with Sophie, a beautiful white German Shepherd. They could remain up to two hours, during which time they were allowed to pet, hug, feed, brush, draw, photograph, sit near and play fetch with the dog.
The study was led by Dr. Leslie Stewart of Idaho State, who started the research when she was a PhD student at Georgia State. Stewart collaborated with Drs. Franco Dispenza, Lindy Parker and Catherine Chang of Georgia State and Ms. Taffey Cunnien of Savannah College of Art and Design.
College counseling centers have been feeling the strain as anxiety and loneliness on campuses has increased recently. Budget constraints have forced these centers to become creative in offering services to meet the growing needs.
Animal-assisted therapy could be an effective way for the counseling centers to meet these demands, the authors suggest. Their findings represent one of the first studies 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,” Dispenza said. “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.”
A therapist can’t just bring in any dog as a therapy dog, however. To become a registered therapy dog, both the dog and the handler must complete a series of classes and evaluations. These involve grooming, temperament, previous training and relationship with the handler. Because dogs are so domesticated and attuned to human emotional needs, they can be excellent therapy animals. Dogs seem to have an ability to read human cues, telling whether the person is sad, for instance.
“The presence of a therapy dog facilitates a therapeutic connection between the client and the mental health professional,” Parker said. “When you’re trying to do mental health work with someone, establishing that therapeutic relationship and rapport is so important. Any way to do it faster or more effectively only helps facilitate the therapeutic process.”
Image 2 (below): Sophie, a German Shepherd, is a trained therapy dog. Credit: Karin Sullivan
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