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VCU Study Shows That Therapy Dogs Soothe College Students Before Exams 

Researchers aim to bring Fido to the classroom during test time.

click to enlarge Stewie makes friends with VCU students during a study on the impact of therapy dogs on exam stress.

VCU, University Public Affairs

Stewie makes friends with VCU students during a study on the impact of therapy dogs on exam stress.

A little bit of canine companionship could soon join good study habits as a way to help college students reduce stress before exams.

A research team at Virginia Commonwealth University recently discovered that visits with therapy dogs before exams significantly affected how students evaluated their stress level during finals week.

Universities should consider using therapy dogs to take the edge off of exam jitters because they're a low-cost solution with no side effects, says Sandra Barker, a psychiatry professor and head of the VCU Center for Human-Animal Interaction.

The center hopes that four-legged friends can help combat the depression, anxiety and poor academics that often result from exam stress. The group already found that therapy dogs have a soothing effect on health care professionals, psychiatric patients and on office workers.

In the study published March 8 in the journal Anthrozoos, CHAI investigated the impact of therapy dog visits on the stress levels of 78 college students before fall exams. The students interacted with animals for 15 minutes and spent 15 minutes in a neutral setting without the dogs.

Researchers found that the students ranked themselves more favorably on questionnaires that indicated perceived stress. But there wasn’t a reduction in physical indicators of stress, such as salivary nerve growth factor.

Barker says that perceived stress is an important mental health indicator.

“It didn’t matter whether they were in the control condition first or with the dogs first,” Barker says. “There was a significant stress reduction with the dogs either way.”

The dogs eventually could be present not only before testing, but also while students are under the gun. The team is designing a study that aims to have tails wagging in test classrooms soon.

Other study investigators include Randolph T. Barker, VCU School of Business; Nancy L. McCain, school of nursing; Christine M. Schubert, Air Force Institute of Technology; and Rebecca Holloway, VCU Center for Human-Animal Interaction.

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