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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Can Therapy Dogs Help Students Handle Stress?

Please welcome today's guest contributor, Molly Crossman, a Graduate Student & Co-Director of the Innovative Interactions Lab in the Department of Psychology at Yale University. 

More than 925 colleges and universities have therapy animal programs for their students. The idea is that playing with a dog (or a cat, rabbit, bird, guinea pig, actual pig, llama, or rat—to name a few of the available options,) will help students cope with stress. But with record-high rates of anxiety and depression among students, can a few minutes with an animal really help? 

To answer this question, we did a randomized controlled trial (the gold standard for testing out new medical and psychological treatments). We randomly assigned 67 students and medical residents (who have especially high rates of distress), to either: 

  • Play with a therapy dog, 
  • View pictures of the same dog, or
  • Wait for a turn to play with the dog

Our participants ranged in age from 22 to 37 years old, and the majority (55%) were female. We used the State portion of the State/Trait Anxiety Inventory and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule to assess participants’ subjective experiences of anxiety and mood before and after participating. Both questionnaires ask respondents to rate how they are feeling at the moment, and both are well-validated for this purpose. 

 Photo: John Curtis/Yale Medicine
Dog: Finn (DYBID has to add that he's just the cutest! Look at those eyebrows!)
We found that interaction with the dog did reduce anxiety and improve mood for our participants. Participants who spent their time with the dog improved more than those who viewed (but did not interact with) the dog, and more than those who waited. In other words, as important as it is to take breaks, and as great as cute animal pictures make us feel, getting to interact with an animal is even better. 

Our study corroborates what many dog owners experience—playing with a dog really can improve mental health. But this evidence gives us something that our own experiences cannot. Our findings show that it is not just our high expectations that make therapy animals seem effective. In our study, less than 10 minutes with a therapy dog produced improvement on measures of real clinical symptoms, and that change was not just about taking a break from work.  

The Role of Therapy Animals in Combating Student Stress 
Our findings are important because student stress has reached a crisis point. Over 50% of college students have symptoms of depression, and 11% have thoughts of suicide. Of course, I am not suggesting that therapy animals will ever replace counseling centers on college campuses. On the contrary, therapy animals have already carved out a niche all their own. Therapy animals are appealing and students expect that they will help, therapy animals do not require appointments or commitments, and therapy animals can help many students in a small amount of time at little to no financial cost. In other words, even though therapy animals do not necessarily have a huge impact on every student, they are exceptionally well suited to make some difference for an enormous number of students. 

Graduate Student & Co-Director of the Innovative Interactions Lab 
Department of Psychology, Yale University 
Email: molly.crossman@yale.edu
Twitter: @mollycrossman

Reference
Crossman, M.K., Kazdin, A.E. & Knudson, K. (2015). Brief unstructured interaction with a dog reduces stressAnthrozoƶs, 28, 649—659.

For more coverage of this research, check out the Psychology Today post by Hal Herzog, ‘Stress Relief in Seven Minutes: Doggie Style. Do programs using dogs to relieve anxiety in university students really work?’ Nov 19, 2015

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

What happens to your heart when you share time with dogs? #HeartsAligned

Most dog owners will tell you that their dogs are good for them. They don't need a scientist to tell them that. But if you ask those same owners "How is your dog good for you?", they might struggle to find the words to describe what underlies the feelings they have about their animal companions.

I recently helped out with a demonstration (organised by Pedigree) that measured the heart rates of dogs and their owners, while separated and when reunited. The idea was prompted by an observation made by Dr Rollin McCraty, who monitored his son and their dog. We used non-invasive heart rate monitors on three dogs and their owners, to measure their heart rate rhythms in real time. We set the owner up on a couch, in front of cameras and lights in a studio, and kept their dog on the other side of a screen, out of sight, for less than two minutes. We then reunited the dogs and owners and encouraged the owner to relax with their dog on the couch, as they would usually do at home. The results? Well - see for yourself, here:


If you had asked me before the demonstration, what to expect, I would have told you "a reduction in heart rates for both dogs and owners over time (maybe 3-5min or so), perhaps after an slight initial increase of reunion excitement". I would not have predicted the close coherence in patterns that we observed within 1min of the reunion. Even as a dog owner and canine science researcher, who knows my dog helps me lead a healthier, happier life, I was astonished!

I genuinely hope this phenomenon is an area of human-animal interaction that attracts more research attention.

So how do dogs help our health?
It's currently unclear what processes underlie the coherence of heart rate patterns we observed between dogs and their owners during the Hearts Aligned demonstration. It's fascinating and something I'd love to research further. Although this was a small case study of just three dogs, the results were striking. 

These Australian dogs and their owners were randomly recruited through a routine casting call to the general public. The data are authentic. It was a delight to witness the beautiful relationship that Glenn, Alice and Sienna enjoyed with their dogs, Lyric, Juno and Jake. It would be interesting to explore the closeness of pattern alignment with other validated measures such as attachment (a term used in psychology that describes the strength of the emotional bond) between people and their dogs.


Glenn & Lyric, Alice & Juno, Sienna & Jake
Existing research suggests that pet owners exercise more, which of course is beneficial for our health. Pets have also been shown to improve cardiovascular health in other ways. For example, patting your dog can release oxytocin that acts to reduce levels of stress hormones, resulting in  lower blood pressure and heart rate. Additionally, research shows us that heart attack survivors and people with serious heart related abnormalities who own dogs may live longer than people with the same problems who don't have pets. There are also many studies suggesting animal companions are good for boosting our social resilience and mental health too.

The Hearts Aligned demonstration shows us that perhaps something as simple as relaxing in the company of our dogs at the end of a day of work or school, might also help to reduce our heart rate and offer our bodies a break from the stresses of everyday life.

Speaking for myself, I feel more light-hearted when in the company of my dog. He distracts me from every day stresses, promotes me to get outside and exercise, makes me laugh every day with his antics and gives me company, even when other family members are away. I think I'm a fairly typical dog owner and that others share these feelings. Physically, these things probably result in a lower heart rate and blood pressure than I'd otherwise experience, and I suspect I feel less stressed than I otherwise would.

Luckily, I was able to enjoy the relaxing effect of patting the beautiful Millie when I was invited onto the Studio 10 program to talk about how dogs can help us stress less on national TV:


Hearts Aligned is also fundraising for the national rescue organisation, Pet Rescue, who support over 950 shelters across Australia. We hope the video inspires people to share their own dog photos using the official hashtag #HeartsAligned. Each post on Facebook will trigger a $1 donation from Pedigree to Pet Rescue, up to $20,000. 

That's certainly enough evidence to make my heart feel good!

Mia

Further reading:
Cutt, HE, Knuiman, MW, Giles-Corti, B, 2008, ‘Does getting a dog increase recreational walking?’, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, vol. 5. pp. 17-27.

McConnell, AR, Brown, CM, Shoda, TM, Stayton, LE, Martin, CE, 2011, ‘Friends with benefits: on the positive consequences of pet ownership’, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, vol.101, no.6, pp.1239-1252

Headey, B, Na, F, Grabka, M, & Zheung, R, ‘Pets and human health in Australia, China and Germany: Evidence from three continents’, 2004, International Association of Human Animal Interaction Organisations Conference, Glasgow.

Nagengast, SL, Baun, MM, Megel, M, and Leibowitz, JM, 1997,‘The effects of the presence of a companion animal on physiological arousal and behavioural distress in children, Journal of Pediatric Nursing, vol. 12, pp. 323-330.

Thompson, KL, & Gullone, E, ‘Prosocial and Antisocial Behaviours in Adolescents: An Investigation into Associations with Attachment and Empathy’, Anthrozoos, vol.21, no. 2, pp. 123-137.

Wood L, Martin K, Christian H, Nathan A, Lauritsen C, Houghton S, et al. (2015) The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0122085. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0122085

© Mia Cobb || Do You Believe in Dog? 2016