Life Wellbeing Stressed from studying? Patting a dog boosts thinking and planning skills

Stressed from studying? Patting a dog boosts thinking and planning skills

Feeling stressed in studies? Pat a dog.
A therapist dog calms down an anxious student, steadying her mind. Photo: Getty
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Mid-year exams are a couple of weeks away. No doubt plenty of our young scholars are a little stressed. What to do about it?

According to the College Student’s Guide to Stress Management, as found at Purdue Global University, you can lower your stress by eating well, exercising, taking up yoga, painting or gardening.

You can also make some supportive friends, learn how to get better organised, try aromatherapy and … why not keep a journal?

But study is making me too stressed

These tactics are certainly helpful, but they take a bit of work and discipline and who has time for that?

Isn’t there a short cut to easing stress and sharpening your focus?

A new study says yes there is: Pat a dog.

No kidding. Researchers from Washington State University (WSU) have demonstrated that patting a dog is more effective than traditional stress-management programs.

Stressed students showed greater improvement in thinking and planning skills when dog-patting was the exclusive treatment.

How do you measure such a thing?

In the three-year experiment, 309 students were randomly assigned to one of three stress-management programs: A mixture of evidence-based traditional strategies and human-animal interactions.

The participants were measured and monitored for ‘executive functioning’ – these are the skills needed for planning, organisation, motivation, concentration and the ability to memorise.

(The dogs and volunteer handlers were provided through Pet Partners, a national organisation with more than 10,000 therapy teams.)

Consistently, over each four-week program, the participants who relied solely on dogs and their volunteer handlers for treatment showed the most improvement.

“The results were very strong,” said lead author Patricia Pendry, associate professor in WSU’s Department of Human Development.

“We saw that students who were most at risk ended up having most improvements in executive functioning in the human-animal interaction condition. These results remained when we followed up six weeks later.”

Why is this so?

The authors note that many universities, including WSU, have provided academic stress management programs and workshops for many years.

These are traditionally “very similar to college classes, where students listen to an expert, watch slideshows and take notes”.

They’re often evidence-based courses that talk about ways to get more sleep, set goals, or manage stress or anxiety.

“These are really important topics, and these workshops are helping typical students succeed by teaching them how to manage stress,” Dr Pendry said.

“Interestingly though, our findings suggest that these types of educational workshops are less effective for students that are struggling.”

It seemed that students “may experience these programs as another lecture, which is exactly what causes the students to feel stressed”.

Human-animal interaction programs help by “letting struggling students relax as they talk and think about their stressors … rather than become overwhelmed”.

This enhances their ability “to think, set goals, get motivated, concentrate and remember what they are learning,” Dr Pendry said.

“If you’re stressed, you can’t think or take up information. Learning about stress is stressful,” she said.

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