To say the four years spent as a student in college is a stressful time in one’s life would be an understatement. According to the American College Health Association health assessment, 76.6% of undergraduate students reported experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress during the academic year. Whether it’s the state of the world, personal relationships, or academic responsibilities, a student’s life has never been more demanding.

To combat the stressful environment a student may experience, Board of Trustees member Claire Peel ’72 and Assistant Professor of Instruction in Kinesiology Vanessa Mikan have partnered to study the human-animal bond in stress management. The human-animal bond is the relationship between people and animals that influences the psychological and physiological state of the other. The pair are specifically studying students’ stress levels before and after interacting with a therapy dog.

Peel works with Pet Partners, a national organization that demonstrates and promotes the health and wellness benefits of animal-assisted therapy, activities, and education to improve human health and well-being. Peel’s work with Pet Partners includes being an instructor who trains owners and dogs to become certified as therapy animal handlers, and she is currently training her own pup, Sage, to become a therapy dog. As a Southwestern graduate and physical therapist, Peel says one of the most rewarding things she has done is animal visitation programs at different universities. So when she moved back to Georgetown, starting an animal therapy study at her alma mater was a no-brainer.

When Peel met Mikan, who teaches a stress management course, Mikan invited Peel to present to her class the research on the role of the animal-human bond in decreasing stress and promoting health. During the presentation, students engaged with Pet Partners therapy dogs and participated in a survey conducted to monitor stress scores before and after interacting with the dogs.

“What we found from that initial pre and post-stress survey was that there was a significant drop in stress during that short interaction,” Mikan recalls.

In the initial survey of students, they found that 40% of students reported moderate to high levels of stress prior to interacting with a therapy dog. Following the interaction, 82.5% of students reported minimal to low stress levels. Mikan and Peel realized they had gathered data to start a more robust study. They then began the process of appealing to the Southwestern administration to bring therapy dogs to campus on a regular schedule to study student stress levels. Mikan also recruited students from the Exercise is Medicine student organization she advises to help with the project.

The therapy dogs were approved to come to campus beginning in the 2023 spring semester, and thus far, there have been four two-hour sessions where students interact with therapy dogs and handlers. Each session has seen increased student engagement from 30 students the first time to 74 on the third visit. These visits have been rewarding not only for the students but also for the pet handlers. One dog and handler pair, Dilly and Jean Gotkowski have attended all four sessions and said that of all the places they have visited, Southwestern and its students are the friendliest.

“Dilly just adores the students she has interacted with,” Gotkowski remarked. “She walks through the door with her tail wagging and leaves with her tail wagging.”

Through these interactions, students have been able to detach themselves from their scholarly lives; they get down on the floor with the dogs for a pet or snuggle and engage with the handlers. Mikan’s Exercise is Medicine students have noted that students visiting with dogs and handlers have started creating relationships with one another through these routine visits.

In order to collect data from this study, Mikan and Peel are surveying students at the therapy sessions via a QR code. The short survey asks students about their stress levels pre and post-session with a therapy dog and whether they enjoyed the experience, along with other open-ended questions. They plan to conduct this survey through the end of the spring semester and will present their findings to the Southwestern administration in hopes that the therapy dogs will become a weekly destressing occasion for students and that the study can continue in the following semesters.

Mikan and Peel have also been working in conjunction with the Counseling Center as their study supports the mental health services the Center provides. Mikan says Health Educator Santiago Rocha and the student health interns have been a huge help with the project. It has been a collaborative effort, from creating banners to advertise when the therapy dogs will be on campus to coordinating with the Southwestern University Police Department to ensure parking spots are reserved for pet therapy teams to supporting the project. In the future, Mikan and Peel would like to partner with the Counseling Center to provide therapy dogs at individual counseling sessions.

The pair is thrilled with how well the study has been received so far. Peel says she is so happy to see that students can reduce their stress levels, even if just for a few minutes; the handlers are enjoying their time speaking with students, and the dogs seem to be loving the interactions as well. Peel and Mikan are grateful for the collaborative effort of multiple campus offices in getting the word out about the therapy dogs. They know the Pet Partners and their study will make a difference in student stress levels and allow students to lead happier and healthier lives.