Research You Can Use

Doggone Good? Potential Benefits of Assistance Animals for Students on College Campuses

Citation: Polking, A., Cornelius-White, J., & Stout, T.  (2017). Doggone Good? Potential Benefits of Assistance Animals for Students on College Campuses. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 30(3), 237-250.

Why Is This Study Important?

The legal requirements and terminology around service animals and emotional support animals are frequent topics of conversation in our disability resource offices and on our listservs.  This research study looks at the topic of animals on campus from a different angle.  The authors, Amanda Polking, Jeffrey Cornelius-White, and Tracy Stout from the University of Missouri, wanted to know more about animal assisted therapy and its educational benefits on college campuses. They defined Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) as “a goal oriented, planned, and structured therapeutic intervention directed and/or adopted by health, education, and human services professionals” (International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations, 2014). They were particularly interested in whether there are benefits to having an assistance animal present for students who access the campus disability resource office. And if so, what those benefits might be.

Research Methods in a Nutshell

The research consisted of an extensive review of the literature using several broad key words (e.g., “therapy animal,” “animal assisted,” “counseling”) and across multiple databases (e.g, Ebscohost, PsychINFO). The researchers also conducted grandfather searches, or searches of the citations in the literature they located to find additional resources.

Some Key Findings

There were no research studies that were specifically set within a disability resource office. The authors, however, gave an overview of a variety of descriptive and research study articles from related areas. For the purpose of focusing on research to practice, the following high lights draw on selected empirical research studies identified by the authors.

Effectiveness of Animal Assisted Therapy. Nimar and Lundahl (2007) conducted a meta-analysis of research on AAT. Meta-analysis is a scientific method for reviewing multiple research studies on a single topic and conducting a statistical analysis of the aggregate findings.  Nimar and Lundahl focused on research participants with medical, mental health, and behavioral reasons for participating in AAT. They also analyzed the research to learn more about the type of animal involved (e.g., dogs, horses), the location of the therapy (e.g., offices, camps, hospitals), and the length of treatment. Across the varied studies, they found that dogs were the most frequently used therapy animal and AAT had a positive effect on participant wellbeing, behavior, and medical symptoms. In office settings the “effect size,” or impact of the therapy was larger than other settings.

Animal Assisted Therapy and Animal Assisted Activities with College Students. Several studies have looked at the use of AAT to help reduce anxiety, stress, and depression with college students. Folse, Minder, Aycock, and Santana (1994) identified 44 college students with depression, and put them in three groups: those who received AAT, those who received AAT and psychotherapy, and a control group.  Using the Beck Depression Inventory before and after the intervention, students who received AAT alone showed the most improved scores. 

In another study, Stewart, Dispenza, Parker, Chang, and Cunnien (2014) examined the effectiveness of AAT on student loneliness and anxiety. Fifty college students voluntarily participated in a AAT program that took place in a residence hall lobby.  Students were permitted to “drop in” any time during a two-hour period to interact with the dogs. Activity with the animals ranged from petting and brushing to playing and taking pictures. On measures given before and after the session, students self-reported significantly less loneliness and anxiety. Other authors have noted that rather than “therapy” this type of program is better described as animal assisted activities or visitation programs.

Daltry and Mehr (2015) examined the use of animal assisted activities by a campus counseling center. The center’s goals in using the activities were to reduce student stress and to increase student awareness and access of the counseling center.  A therapy dog was made available at the center on a monthly basis and students were asked for feedback. Ninety-two percent (92%) of students reported a reduction in stress after interacting with the dog, and 94% of students reported they would not have visited the center if the therapy dogs had not been present.

Camaioni (2013) explored the impact of a Campus Canines Program on social connection and communication. In this program, resident students were provided the opportunity to interact with therapy dogs with a general goal of stress and anxiety reduction. Camaioni observed a recurring interaction pattern of communication between students, volunteers and the dogs. While dogs were the initial attraction, interaction with the dog consistently resulted in increased human conversation including student to student, and student to volunteer exchanges. On an online survey, 71% of the student participants reported it was easier to communicate with others in the presence of a dog. Students also reported having conversations with other family and friends about the CCP experience.

Limitations

The authors discuss a number of limitations to the research on this topic including the frequent use of small numbers of participants, short term data collection, and lack of control groups in intervention studies. The most challenging aspect of interpreting the findings in this literature however are the many different uses of the term AAT, and the frequent interchanging of terms with the more loosely structured animal assisted activities or visitation programs.

Actionable Steps

While research is not conclusive, it does suggest possible findings that are interesting for a disability resource office.  The structure of the animal assisted therapy or activity described in the research varies widely, but there remains a pattern of positive feedback from student participants. The broad appeal of interacting with therapy dogs may help to overcome some of the stigma of visiting “service” related offices such as disability resources. And the potential benefits in reducing student stress and anxiety are appealing given the wide spread presence of anxiety and depression among college students.

Is providing AAT or a therapy dog the role of a disability resource office?  The authors provide a number of logistical considerations for offices that are interested in exploring possibilities for including a therapy dog in their work including some preliminary thoughts about safety, insurance, and the role of staff.

Considering the benefits of a therapy dog within a disability resource office raises some questions: Would an on-site therapy dog in a disability resource office help address the growing number of requests from students for personal emotional support animals in the residence halls?  Would a therapy dog in the disability resource office improve student attendance for appointments? Would communication patterns with students and disability resource staff change as the result of having a therapy dog present? These and other questions would be intriguing to explore and document through office data collection.

Want to Know More?

Read the full report of findings at: https://www.ahead.org/publications/jped/vol_30

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