Petting, cuddling with a dog can significantly enhance your well-being

KELOWNA, British Columbia — Therapy dogs (and other animals too) have been helping patients for years. While it’s great to have a furry companion around during rehabilitation, is there a real health benefit to petting a dog? According to researchers in Canada, there really is. A team from the University of British Columbia reports that petting and cuddling with a therapy dog significantly enhances well-being.

“There have been a number of studies that have found canine-assisted interventions significantly improve participants’ wellbeing, but there has been little research into what interactions provide the greatest benefits,” says Dr. John-Tyler Binfet, associate professor in the School of Education and director of the Building Academic Retention Through K-9s (BARK) program, in a university release. “We know that spending time with therapy dogs is beneficial but we didn’t know why.”

Study authors gathered 284 college students to help them with this project. They then randomly assigned each student to one of three groups. One group could interact with a therapy dog, but with no touching. Another could both interact and touch their therapy dog and a third group met with a dog handler and no pup at all.

Before getting started, each student filled out a survey asking about their overall well-being. These assessments included questions regarding social connectedness, happiness, integration into the campus community, stress, homesickness, loneliness, positive and negative affect, and “self-perceptions of flourishing.”

Petting away the anxiety after COVID

While students assigned to the “interact but don’t touch” group showed notable improvements across various measures of well-being, the group actually permitted to touch their therapy dogs experienced the most benefits. The petting group was the only one of the three that displayed big improvements across all well-being factors.

“As students potentially return to in-person class on their college campuses this fall and seek ways to keep their stress in check, I’d encourage them to take advantage of the therapy dog visitation program offered. And once there — be sure to make time for a canine cuddle,” Dr. Binfet explains. “That’s a surefire way to reduce stress.”

Many students, parents, and teachers alike from all grades are feeling anxious lately about the return to in-person learning. This work suggests it may be a good idea for schools of all kinds to have a few canine hall monitors on call to welcome everyone back.

“When therapy dogs are brought to campus, program organizers must be mindful of the dog-to-student ratio. Our research tells us that interacting through touch is key to reducing student stress so program administrators must be mindful to offer programs that make this possible,” Dr. Binfet concludes.

The study appears in the journal Anthrozoös.