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It is possible that eventually, more and more therapy dogs may be going to college.
Recent research shows that the anxiety and loneliness experienced by many college students are significantly reduced using animal-assisted therapy in group settings.
The 55 student research participants self-reported a 60 percent drop in their symptoms of loneliness and anxiety following animal-assisted therapy sessions supervised by a licensed mental health counselor. Eighty-five percent of the participants indicated the most beneficial part of the program was being with Sophie, the therapy dog.
The sessions, held twice per month, let students interact with the therapy dog for up to two hours. Interaction included feeding, hugging, brushing, playing fetch, drawing, photographing, or just sitting close to the dog.
The high incidence of anxiety and other mental health issues, plus budget constraints, has college counseling centers looking for creative ways to help students.
“College counseling centers aren’t seeing students struggling with academics, which major to pick, or how to study,” said researcher Dr. Franco Dispenza. “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.”
Dogs make incredible therapy animals for students because of their affectionate nature and apparent ability to read and respond to emotional cues from humans. Having a therapy dog present at group sessions also facilitates the therapeutic connection between students and the counselor. Creating a trusting rapport between client and counselor is crucial to the healing process.
No one who feels a connection to animals, dogs particularly, will be surprised by this research study—but it is the empirical results from such studies that can pave the way for animal-assisted therapy in more colleges. Any therapeutic method that produces progress and is cost-effective should be welcome.
To be a registered therapy dog the animal and their handler must take a set of courses and evaluations that determine the dog (and handler’s) suitability. The American Kennel Club website has a list of therapy dog organizations for anyone interested in learning more about it.
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