Innovative Teaching via a Therapy Dog  (2018)

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Anxiety is now the most common mental health condition on college campuses nationally. Students experiencing anxiety state that this affects all aspects of their lives, from relationships with their peers and professors, healthy sleeping patterns, concentrating in the classroom, and completing assignments.

Including trained animals in classrooms has shown positive health outcomes for young children for quite some time. Having a therapy animal in the room for 20 minutes is associated with decreased blood pressure and increased ability to sustain pain management without drugs. Additionally, children who engage with therapy animals report that they have greater self-esteem, improved focus in their classroom activities and enhanced memory and problem-solving skills.

Due to the stigma of mental illness, students often do not want to seek professional help, especially on campus where they might see a fellow classmate in the waiting room. In addition, campus mental health centers often have long waiting lists due to reasons including lack of funding, and students accessing services only when their distress is too acute. Therefore, incorporating universal, campus prevention alternatives is essential to aiding students in achieving their personal and professional goals while in school. As colleges and universities are using therapy dogs progressively more in their mental health centers, as well as providing them in libraries and classes during finals week, there is no known study examining the longer-term effects of using a trained dog for the entire semester in the classroom.

The purpose of this project is to test the feasibility of having a therapy dog in the classroom, to ascertain students’ self-reports of anxiety and learn from this study in order to model this intervention for other classes in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.

During the Spring semester of 2018, two BSW sections of SW332: Individuals and Families will participate in this project. One section will be randomly assigned to have a therapy dog in the classroom for the entire semester and the other class will only have a therapy dog attend the last day of class (TAU). All students will be asked to complete the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), a stress visual analog scale (SVAS) and the Generalized Anxiety Disorder screener (GAD-7) during the first and then the last class. Students will also be invited to participate in a focus group led by two trained, masters-level GRA’s discussing their experience with having a therapy dog in class. This pilot and feasibility study will analyze potential differences in groups and note any changes in reported anxiety and perceived stress over the spring semester.

Including a therapy dog in the classroom will potentially help students manage their self-reported stress and anxiety levels throughout the semester, and decrease stigma related to help-seeking during times of distress.  Additionally, this project could initiate similar projects on UT’s campus, which would provide a model for innovative teaching practices to other universities nationally.