Stroking a dog regularly can reduce anxiety and boost thinking

Pet your stress away! Stroking a dog on a regular basis can ‘significantly’ reduce anxiety and enhance thinking skills in stressed students, study finds

  • Researchers from Washington State University recruited 309 stressed students
  • They enrolled them in one of three different stress management programmes
  • The programme focussed on animal therapy was found to be the most effective
  • After four weeks, students were found to have gained improved cognitive skills
  • Petting animals allowed the students to stay calm while addressing their issues

Spending time regularly petting a therapy dog can ‘significantly’ reduce anxiety and enhance thinking skills in stressed-out students, an investigation has concluded.

Experts from Washington State University found that stress management programs focussed on therapy dogs were more effective for struggling students.

After completing a four-week-long program with animal therapy, students were found to have improved cognitive skills that persisted for at least four weeks. 

The investigation was a follow-up to a 2019 study that showed that petting animals for just ten minutes could reduce students’ stress in the short-term.

Spending just ten minutes petting a dog (as pictured) can ‘significantly’ reduce anxiety and enhance thinking skills in stressed-out students, an investigation has concluded

‘It’s a really powerful finding,’ said paper author and human–animal interaction expert Patricia Pendry of the Washington State University.

‘Universities are doing a lot of great work trying to help students succeed academically, especially those who may be at risk due to a history of mental health issues or academic and learning issues.’

‘This study shows that traditional stress management approaches aren’t as effective for this population as programs that focus on providing opportunities to interact with therapy dogs.’

In their three-year study, Professor Pendry and colleagues recruited 309 students and assigned them each to one of three academic stress-management programmes.

The programmes featured varying combinations of evidenced-based academic stress management and human—animal interactions. 

Therapy dogs provided for the other side of the study — and their handlers — came from Palouse Paws, a local affiliate of the national therapy organization Pet Partners.

During the study period, the researchers measured the students’ so-called executive functioning — the skills that you need to plan, organise, concentrate, memorize facts and motivate yourself, which are vital to succeed in college and university. 

After completing a four-week-long program with animal therapy involving dogs, pictured, students were found to have improved cognitive skills that persisted for at least four weeks

‘The results were very strong,’ said Professor Pendry.

‘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.’ 

Traditional, evidence-based stress management programmes are typically run like a class, with students listening to an expert, watching slideshows and taking notes on topics including how to get more sleep, set goals or manage one’s anxiety.

‘These are really important topics, and these workshops are helping typical students succeed by teaching them how to manage stress,’ noted Professor Pendry. 

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

‘It seems that students may experience these programs as another lecture, which is exactly what causes the students to feel stressed.’

According to the team, the human–animal interaction programs help struggling students allowing them to relax as they talk and think about their stressors, rather than becoming overwhelmed by them.

‘If you’re stressed, you can’t think or take up information; learning about stress is stressful!’ Professor Pendry quipped.

Moreover, she explained, animal sessions can help students engage in positive thoughts and actions.

‘You can’t learn math just by being chill,’ Professor Pendry added.

‘But when you are looking at the ability to study, engage, concentrate and take a test, then having the animal aspect is very powerful.’

‘Being calm is helpful for learning especially for those who struggle with stress and learning.’

The full findings of the study were published in the American Educational Research Association’s journal AERA Open. 


Pets have been a companion to humans for millennia.

In fact, according to Greger Larson, director of the University of Oxford’s palaeogenomics and bio-archaeology research network, humans have likely kept baby animals for amusement as long as humans have lived.

But the story of exactly how animals became domesticated is much debated and often only glimpsed at from scraps of fossils and DNA.

Scientists largely agree that dogs were the first domestic animal. They were tamed and used for work or for their meat.

A study published by University of Maine researchers in 2011 found evidence that dogs were being bred, and, eaten, by humans living in Texas some 9,400 years ago.

A more recent study in 2017 found dogs were domesticated in a single event by humans living in Eurasia. 

Dr Krishna Veeramah, an assistant professor in evolution at Stony Brook University, told MailOnline: ‘We’ve found clear evidence that dogs were domesticated 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.

‘New research last year provocatively suggested that dogs could have been domesticated twice but our conclusion was there is no evidence for dual domestication.

‘We would argue that finding evidence for only one domestication event is a big deal, because it is very important to helping us understand how domestication works.’

His research found that dogs evolved to be a separate species from wild wolves sometime between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. 

But it’s not known if they were the first pets, and kept for companionship. 

A study this year found  compared the genomes, or complete genetic codes, of modern domestic and wild rabbits to see how long it had taken them to diverge.

Using the known mutation rate of certain biomolecules as a ‘molecular clock’ they found it was not possible to pin down rabbit domestication to a single date or event.

Instead, the creation of tame buns appeared to be a cumulative effect stretching back to Roman times and possibly the Stone Age.  

The story of domestication is not a linear progression from wild to domestic, Larsen told the Smithsonian. 

‘These things exist on a continuum,’ says Larson. He said when the first pet came into being is ‘a bit like asking when did life begin?’

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