The Effect of Play with Canines on Psychological and Physical Stress Measures in College Students

Saturday, 18 March 2017: 3:20 PM

Cheryl Delgado, PhD
Margaret Toukonen, PhD
Corinne Wheeler, PhD
School of Nursing, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH, USA

Introduction and Background: Stress can be impede learning and be a major cause of student attrition or failure to advance in studies at a timely pace. This is an increasing concern in academia. Some universities are working to create supportive student communities and a more home-like atmosphere on campus. Increasingly this includes having a pet on the premises. Successful pet therapy programs are found at many universities and according to a report in Forbes Magazine, support animals on campus is an emerging norm.

Studies on the human animal, especially canine, bond have demonstrated effective reductions in perceptions of stress, reductions in anxiety and loneliness, and increased sensitivity and focus in some patients with emotional disorders. Positive physiological responses have been documented when dogs and other animals have been used for symptom amelioration in heart failure, cancer, stroke, and chronic pain.

Anecdotal evidence supports the use of family or therapy dogs in university housing for student homesickness, loneliness and anxiety. One previous study reported significant decreases in anxiety and loneliness after contact with therapy dogs in campus open counseling sessions, but another failed to find supportive evidence for significant relief of psychological or cardiovascular changes in students in an anxiety producing task.

Research Plan

All our faculty research team members are familiar with the work of therapy animals and two own certified therapy dogs or dogs eligible for certification. Therapy dogs have the temperament and training to interact with people and attach therapeutically. Support training is requires a calm accepting response to the emotional state of humans. Service dogs differ as they are trained to perform specific tasks for a disabled human.

Our plan was for students to engage in a one on one interactive session with a therapy dog during a stressful time – finals week. Psychological stress measures included a modified version of the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) developed by Cohen, Kamark and Mermelstein, and four visual analog scales (VAS) for stress, anger, confusion and sadness. Physiologic stress was measured by blood pressure, pulse, and salivary cortisol levels. Salivary cortisol levels correlate well with serum readings which are the physiologic standard. All data was marked pre or post-intervention and labeled with a study specific code.

The study plan was approved by the university Institutional Review Board (IRB) for human subjects and was reviewed by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). As the dogs were the study intervention not the subjects, IACUC permission was not required, but advice was solicited on appropriate conditions. The dogs were supervised by their handler owners at all times while on campus.

Students were recruited by posters throughout campus. Inclusion criteria included adult male or female students or staff at the university who were not afraid of or allergic to dogs. Volunteers made thirty minute appointments and were advised on the rules for the interactions. A biting protocol was included in the research plan and this remote risk was noted on the informed consent.


Anonymity in this study was not possible because the students are known to faculty, but efforts were made to protect confidentiality, including the use of private areas for interactions and testing, and de-identifying all data forms and specimens. Basic descriptive and paired t tests were computed using the IBM SPSS 22 program. Limited demographic data was obtained from the participants. The preliminary sample consisted of 41 men and women, aged 18 to 63 (mean = 26 years) and included Caucasian, African- American and Asian students reflecting the university’s student population.

Preliminary results for psychological measures documented significant reductions from pre-intervention levels. All were significant reductions; PSS (0.000) and all VAS scales (0.000). With the addition of participants from the December 2016 data collection period, we expect these numbers to remain significant. Pulse (0.031) and systolic blood (0.001) pressure were significantly reduced, but diastolic pressure reductions (0.131) were not. We expect that these results will remain significant with the addition of the participants from fall 2016. Salivary cortisol levels were measured in a commercial laboratory, and the paired t test (2-tailed) results indicated a significant (p=.040) decrease for a sample of students and some staff. To determine if the results for students alone, the fall recruitment will selectively sample students for participation.


There are limitations in the study. The convenience sample was small and self -selection with a bias for positive animal interaction is possible. The modification of the PSS affected its reliability of the instrument.

Interactions with dogs modified stress and positively affected mood in college students. Physiologic changes were also positive. This supports animal assisted therapy as an effective stress management strategy for college students.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act allows service animals when the animal serves a person with a diagnosed disability. These animals are universally accepted, but support animals are not well recognized. However, support animals on campus are popular with students attracting the attention of administrators who search for any advantage in the recruiting game. If future studies support student retention and improved performance, more programs will emerge.