Source: Psychology Today (Extract)
Posted: April 29, 2024

As a professor who routinely brings one or more dogs to class with me, I’m clearly biased in my belief that there are therapeutic benefits to integrating therapy dogs into the post-secondary context. Here’s a look at my home office mates – need additional convincing that I’m sold on the idea that there are benefits to companion animals?!

It’s not uncommon to see dog therapy programs offered on university or college campuses. MacEwan University offers the Pets Assisting with Student Success (or PAWSS) program, the University of Saskatchewan the Paws Your Stress Program, and on my campus we have the Building Academic Retention through K9s (B.A.R.K.) program that I oversee. There are countless other programs across campuses world-wide.

Called Canine-Assisted Interventions or Animal-Visitation Programs, these sessions provide opportunities for students to spend time with and interact with therapy dogs and their handlers as a means of reducing their stress. I’m not alone in advocating for the therapeutic benefits of interacting with dogs. A recent study titled “Should dogs have a seat in the classroom? The effects of canine assisted education on college student mental health” explored this very topic within the post-secondary context. In innovative research, Kivlen and colleagues introduced a therapy dog to 26 students in an Introduction to Occupational Science course. Students completed pre- and post-test measures assessing their distractibility, participation in the course, and stress and anxiety. After twice weekly visits of 75 minutes over the course of five weeks, participants reported significant reductions in stress and anxiety and boosts to student engagement or participation. Kivlen et al. note that the therapy dog introduced in this class was not perceived to be a distraction by students. Though characterized by a small sample size, this exploratory study identified potential benefits to integrating a therapy dog into the post-secondary classroom and paves the pathway for future research investigating this dimension of human-animal interactions.

Therapy Dogs Facilitate Interactions and Foster a Positive Learning Climate

The focus in the above study was understandably on student outcomes, however future research might investigate the effect of dogs on the instructor. Having had dogs in my lectures for years, I can attest to a softening of the classroom climate — an increase in seeing the instructor as approachable. This is in alignment with the notion of therapy dogs being social catalysts who unite folks who otherwise might not interact. My sense is that an in-class interaction facilitated by a therapy dog between an instructor and a student makes students’ subsequent visits to office hours easier and more likely.

Considerations When Canines Are on Campus

It’s the end of term now on college campuses, but it’s worth exploring the idea of integrating informal mental health/stress-reduction supports for students, since it takes time to implement canine programming into classrooms. A first consideration is the school’s pet policy, and this can vary considerably with some colleges having no or loose guidelines and others having clear policies around dogs on campus. See the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus’s pet policy as one illustration.

Another consideration is whether students might have allergies or phobias. The introduction of a dog into a classroom should optimize not compromise students’ learning experience so caution must be taken on these fronts.

The temperament and personality of the dog must be carefully considered, as a poorly behaved dog who grabs a student’s food or soils inside the class will quickly cause more headaches than any potential benefits that might arise from having the dog attend class. Added to this, and more importantly, classrooms can be loud and busy contexts and not all dogs are well-suited to working in this space. This includes therapy dogs who have passed temperament testing, as many dogs would find this experience far too stimulating (mind you, many a lecture has been known to put students to sleep so there’s that!). Certainly, a pressing issue faced by the faculty member who brings a dog to class is the bifurcated responsibility this person has to conduct their professional duties and responsibilities (e.g., deal with technology, deliver a lecture, respond to student queries, etc.) while concurrently overseeing their dog, their dog’s behavior, and their interactions with students. Likely, the dog will accompany the faculty member back to their office and there may be implications here around having a dog in departments. I certainly see an uptick in office hour visits when dogs are in my office.

In addition to the formal programs and resources in place for students seeking mental health support, the integration of a therapy dog into the college classroom holds potential to enrich the learning environment and dispositions of students. As argued above, it takes the right mix of therapy dog and instructor to successfully navigate the complexities of introducing a therapy dog into the college classroom but when done properly, there can be benefits for students and the instructor.