Who let the dogs out?

Paul Greatrix has a round-up of all the important campus news about canines on campus.

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

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I wrote here a while back about some big cats on campus and it therefore seemed appropriate to provide a bit of balance by covering some canine action.

Various arrangements for the provision of emotional support animals, plus of course our old favourite, puppy rooms, as noted here before, have become something of a common campus offer at exam time. The simple theory is that playing with dogs and/or puppies (or alpacas, llamas, miniature therapy horses, piglets, baby chickens etc) is ideal relaxation for stressed-out students.

Anyway, the exciting news is that there is now some research to confirm that there is something in this concept. Not so much the casual puppy room as regular interaction with therapy dogs can bring benefits for student who are struggling academically. This new report from the US on a research project led by Patricia Pendry, professor in the human development department at Washington State University notes that dogs are better than workshops:

college students at risk of failing academically showed significant improvement in executive functioning after interacting with therapy dogs one hour a week for a month. Executive functioning is a term for the skills one needs to plan, organize, motivate, concentrate, and memorize—skills needed to succeed in college. The new study also found that struggling students who participated in traditional stress management workshops over the same period showed no improvement in these skills.

The research assigned a set of students to different groups in which they either only engaged with therapy dogs or undertook only traditional non-dog related stress management work or a mix of both. And the results were clear:

Immediately following the program and again six weeks after the programs ended, only the at-risk students assigned to the program featuring interaction with dogs for the entire time showed significant improvement in their executive functioning. Struggling students who had interacted with dogs for only half an hour each week, or not at all, showed no improvement. Typical students—those not at risk academically—showed no significant improvement in executive functioning from any of the three programs.

It’s all very encouraging but Professor Pendry strikes a cautious note too:

Pendry also stressed that the results of this study should be considered with cautious optimism rather than as an endorsement to significantly increase animal exposure. “While these findings are promising,” she said, “it is important to replicate the results so we fully understand the underlying mechanisms before promoting widespread implementation for at-risk students.”

This does though suggest that universities might reasonably justify allocating funds to evaluate the feasibility of providing animal-assisted interventions on campus but also to reconsider allowing animals in more student accommodation.

It was good to see The Times picking up on this story (what’s not to like) and commenting on the universities in the UK which already deploy therapy dogs, including NTU and its famous hound, Jimmy Chipolata (who gets his picture in the paper too). However, I’m not certain about this comment following its interview with the researcher which does rather suggest a different agenda altogether:

Although the research suggests that some of Pendry’s colleagues could be cost-effectively replaced by a well-behaved Jack Russell or a goat, she has a different interpretation — that this is more evidence the dogs are a useful extra tool.

Will we see more therapy animals on campus to help students in difficulty? Let’s hope so.

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