To say that the four years he spent as a student at the university is a stressful time in one’s life would be an understatement. According to the American College Health Association’s Health Assessment, 76.6% of undergraduate students reported experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress during the academic year. Whether it’s the state of the world, personal relationships, or academic responsibilities, the life of a student has never been more demanding.
To combat the stressful environment a student can experience, Board Member Claire Peel ’72 and Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Instruction Vanessa Mikan has teamed up to study the human-animal link in stress management. The human-animal bond is the relationship between people and animals that influences the psychological and physiological state of the other. The pair is specifically studying students’ stress levels before and after interacting with a therapy dog.
Peel works with pet partners, a national organization that demonstrates and promotes the health and well-being benefits of animal-assisted therapy, activities, and education to improve human health and well-being. Peel’s work with Pet Partners includes being an instructor training owners and dogs to become certified therapy animal handlers, and she is currently training her own pup, Sage, to become a service dog. therapy. As a Southwestern graduate and physical therapist, Peel says one of the most rewarding things she has done is animal visitation programs at different universities. So when she moved back to Georgetown, starting an animal therapy study at her alma mater was a no-brainer.
When Peel met Mikan, who teaches a stress management course, Mikan invited Peel to present research on the role of the animal-human bond in reducing stress and promoting health to her class. During the presentation, students interacted with Pet Partners therapy dogs and participated in a survey conducted to monitor stress scores before and after interacting with the dogs.
“What we found from that initial pre- and post-stress survey was that there was a significant drop in stress during that brief interaction,” recalls Mikan.
In the initial survey of students, they found that 40% of students reported moderate to high stress levels before interacting with a therapy dog. After the interaction, 82.5% of the students reported minimal or low stress levels. Mikan and Peel realized that they had collected data to begin a more robust study. They then began the process of appealing to Southwestern’s administration to bring therapy dogs to campus on a regular schedule to study students’ stress levels. Mikan also recruited students from the student organization Exercise is Medicine that she advises to help with the project.
Therapy dogs have been approved to come to campus beginning in the spring 2023 semester, and so far there have been four two-hour sessions in which students interact with therapy dogs and their handlers. Each session has seen an increase in student participation from 30 students the first time to 74 on the third visit. These visits have been rewarding not only for the students but also for the pet sitters. A dog-handler couple, Dilly and Jean Gotkowski, attended all four sessions and said that of all the places they visited, Southwestern and its students are the friendliest.
“Dilly just adores the students she’s interacted with,” Gotkowski said. “He walks in the door wagging his tail and leaves wagging his tail.”
Through these interactions, students have been able to detach from their academic lives; they lie on the ground with the dogs as pets or curl up and engage with the handlers. The students of Mikan’s Exercise is Medicine have noticed that the students visiting guide dogs have begun to build relationships with each other through these routine visits.
To collect data for this study, Mikan and Peel are surveying students in therapy sessions via a QR code. The short survey asks students about their stress levels before and after their session with a therapy dog and whether they enjoyed the experience, along with other open-ended questions. They plan to conduct this survey through the end of the spring semester and will present their findings to Southwestern administration in the hope that therapy dogs will become a weekly de-stress occasion for students and that the study can continue in subsequent semesters.
Mikan and Peel have also been working in conjunction with the Counseling Center as their study supports the mental health services the Center provides. Mikan says that health educator Santiago Rocha and student health interns have been very helpful with the project. It’s been a collaborative effort, from creating banners to announce when therapy dogs will be on campus to coordinating with the Southwestern University Police Department to ensure parking spots are reserved for pet therapy teams. to support the project. In the future, Mikan and Peel would like to partner with the Counseling Center to provide therapy dogs for individual counseling sessions.
The couple is delighted with how well the study has been received so far. Peel says that she is very happy to see that students are able to reduce their stress levels, if only for a few minutes; the handlers enjoy their time talking to the students, and the dogs seem to enjoy the interactions as well. Peel and Mikan are grateful for the collaborative effort of various campus offices to get the word out about therapy dogs. They know that Pet Partners and their studio will make a difference in students’ stress levels and allow them to lead happier, healthier lives.