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Animal Therapy Can Boost College Counseling

Update Date: Oct 21, 2014 06:06 PM EDT

Interacting with animals reduces anxiety and loneliness, according to a new study on college students.

The latest study involved 55 undergraduate students. Researchers found that students reported a 60 percent decrease in self-reported anxiety and loneliness symptoms after engaging in animal-assisted therapy, which consisted of a registered therapy dog that was under the supervision of a licensed mental health practitioner.

Participants were asked to attend group sessions that were held twice a month during an academic quarter. Participants were asked to stop by and interact with a therapy dog as long as they wished for up to two hours. During this time, students were allowed to o pet, hug, feed, brush, draw, photograph, sit near and play fetch with the therapy dog.

Researchers said the latest findings are important because college campuses are experiencing an increase in anxiety and loneliness among students. Researchers believe that animal-assisted therapy could help counter the growing demands on college counseling centers.

"College counseling centers are also becoming more and more reflective of community mental health agencies," co-researcher Franco Dispenza of Feorgia State University said in a news release. "That's something that's been noted in the field in probably the last 10 to 15 years. College counseling centers aren't seeing students struggling with academics, which major to pick or how to study. They're coming in with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, pervasive mood disorders and considerable contextual strains that are happening out in the world, such as poverty and experiences of homelessness, as well as a history of medical issues and family health issues."

"The presence of a therapy dog facilitates a therapeutic connection between the client and the mental health professional," concluded co-researcher Lindy Parker of Georgia State University, according to a university release. "When you're trying to do mental health work with someone, establishing that therapeutic relationship and rapport is so important. Any way to do it faster or more effectively only helps facilitate the therapeutic process."

The findings are published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health.

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