• Researchers tested the effect of "virtual canine-assisted intervention" on students
  • The sessions were effective in reducing stress and improving well-being
  • "The dog and the handler can bring people together to start to have a conversation about well-being": Christine Tardif-Williams

In-person canine visits help improve people's well-being, but the pandemic limited the chances for such interactions with animals. Researchers found that even a virtual canine session can help comfort students and alleviate their stress.

Previous studies showed evidence that university students have "elevated stress and compromised mental health" when compared to the general population, noted the authors of the study, published in Anthrozoös. When the pandemic hit, the social isolation added to the stress that they were already experiencing.

"We know from a number of studies now that animal- or canine-assisted interventions work really well in alleviating student stress, reducing homesickness and loneliness and increasing positive affect and social connectedness on campus for undergraduate students," said Christine Tardif-Williams, one of the study authors and Associate Professor at Brock University, as per a news release.

For the study, researchers tested how effective a "virtual canine-assisted intervention" would be in reducing the students' stress and supporting their well-being. In other words, they had a canine visit except it was held online.

467 students recruited from psychology classes served as participants in the study. They were randomly assigned to have either a live Zoom (synchronous) or pre-recorded (asynchronous) session with a dog and a trainer.

The sessions followed the usual "script" used in in-person visits, such as giving information about the dog and asking the participants to talk about their well-being. Measures of well-being were then collected after short sessions that lasted five to seven minutes. This included factors such as loneliness, stress and connectedness to the campus.

Indeed, the researchers found that the participants had "significant reductions in anxiety, stress, loneliness, and negative affect and more positive emotional states and stronger feelings of connectedness to their campus" regardless of whether the session they had was synchronous or asynchronous.

"As hypothesized, undergraduate students in this study did report feeling less stressed at the end of the intervention when a dog was present," the researchers wrote.

"I think in some ways this is really attractive for young people, from remote or distance learners to those who do not seek mental health services for various reasons," Tardif-Williams said in the university news release, although she clarified that this is simply a "first step" to full mental health services and not a substitute.

So far, the research is still ongoing, and those interested to participate may visit @barkubc on Instagram.

Tardif-Williams continued, "The dog and the handler can bring people together to start to have a conversation about well-being, and I think that it has the potential to reach a large number of diverse students."

Representative image Credit: Pixabay / PicsbyFran