Therapy Dogs Help Stressed College Students Get Sharper

According to the results of a new study, programs exclusively focused on petting therapy dogs improved stressed-out students’ thinking and planning skills more effectively than programs that included traditional stress-management information.  What’s more, researchers demonstrated that stressed students still exhibited these cognitive skills improvements up to six weeks after completion of the four-week-long program.

“This study shows that traditional stress management approaches aren’t as effective for [the college student] population compared with programs that focus on providing opportunities to interact with therapy dogs.”

-Dr. Patricia Pendry, associate professor, Washington State University Department of Human Development

Study overview

The researchers measured executive functioning in the 309 students involved in the study. Executive function is a term for the skills one needs to plan, organize, motivate, concentrate, memorize.  In the three-year study, students were randomly assigned to one of three academic stress-management programs featuring varying combinations of human-animal interaction and evidenced-based academic stress management. 

Results overview


“The results were very strong. 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.”

-Dr. Patricia Pendry, associate professor, Washington State University Department of Human Development


The researchers believe that human-animal interaction programs help by letting struggling students relax as they talk and think about their stressors. Through petting animals, they are more likely to relax and cope with these stressors rather than become overwhelmed. This enhances students’ ability to think, set goals, get motivated, concentrate and remember what they are learning.  Animal sessions aren’t just about changing behavior; they help students engage in positive thoughts and actions.


Journal Reference:  Patricia Pendry, Alexa M. Carr, Jaymie L. Vandagriff, Nancy R. Gee. Incorporating Human–Animal Interaction Into Academic Stress Management Programs: Effects on Typical and At-Risk College Students’ Executive Function. AERA Open, 2021; 7: 233285842110116 DOI: 10.1177/23328584211011612