Therapy Dogs Improve Mental Health in the Nursing School Classroom

Meg Lambrych, RN-BC
Updated July 20, 2023
    Therapy dogs have long been used in hospitals and nursing homes to reduce patient stress, but a new article shows big benefits for therapy dogs in nursing schools.
    Therapy dog at a classroom deskCredit: Getty Images

    I distinctly remember a particularly stressful moment in nursing school when most of the class was failing our med-surg course. It was exam day, and the stakes were high. I walked through the doors to the nursing school atrium, wound tight enough to snap, but then I stopped.

    It was therapy dog day!

    And for 15 minutes, I rolled around on the floor, playing with a particularly fluffy collie named Pip.

    While nothing in my life had changed, those 15 minutes with the dog had bathed my brain with happy chemicals that effectively lowered my stress levels. I walked into my exam calmer and more optimistic than I was before.

    Therapy dogs — those trained to volunteer in settings like schools, hospitals, and nursing homes — have long been shown as an effective way to boost morale and reduce stress for students, patients, and staff. Still, few nursing schools have taken advantage of them.

    A new study addresses the feasibility and effectiveness of therapy dogs in the nursing school setting.

    Margaret Bultas, Ph.D., RN, CNE, CNL, CPNP-PC, the study’s author, is a researcher and professor at Saint Louis University. She was dismayed at the stress and anxiety her students struggled with throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and she feared for the future of nursing.

    [Because of the nursing shortage], I think we must figure out how to save the nurses we have in the field and get more nurses into the field,” Butlas said. “And as an educator, I saw how stress and anxiety were becoming barriers to [the nursing student’s] education.”

    Bultas and her colleagues introduced a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Jessie into the classroom of an undergraduate nursing program for eight weeks. They surveyed the students before and after to assess their stress, anxiety, and happiness ratings.

    Therapy Dogs Have a Powerful Effect

    Students reported that having a therapy dog in the nursing classroom significantly lowered their stress and anxiety and increased feelings of comfort, happiness, and joy.

    “We found that having a therapy dog in the classroom was feasible, and the students loved it,” Bultas recalled.

    • Students in the therapy dog group reported statistically significant improvements in self-reported stress and anxiety levels.
    • Students also reported a greater sense of comfort and looked forward to going to class.
    • The study also found that introducing a therapy dog to the nursing school classroom was feasible and effective.

    These new findings align with the current body of research that shows therapy dogs are a highly effective, affordable way to improve college students’ mental health.

    However, skeptics exist, and questions of implementation feasibility are often front and center.

    Research published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science examined the role of therapy dogs in education settings in an effort to understand the limitations and concerns that prevent these programs from being implemented.

    The study found that factors such as administration flexibility, consistent communication, and a considerate and perceptive program instigator most highly correlated with the success of their therapy dog program.

    Bultas agrees with this finding and acknowledges not everyone is thrilled to have a dog on campus. Factors such as allergies, cultural differences, traumatic experiences, and hygiene concerns are valid and must be considered thoroughly.

    Bultas also admits that only some therapy dogs are cut out for in-classroom work, as only a few dogs can sit quietly for hours on end and be content doing it, but certain dog breeds do better than others.

    The therapy dog used in the study was her own Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed known for its docility and gentleness.

    Therapy Dogs: How to Get One In Your Classroom

    Training for therapy dogs is not nearly as rigorous as service dogs — dogs that are trained in specific tasks to help people with disabilities. While they don’t require a prescription from a medical provider like emotional support animals, therapy dogs still have to undergo training and accreditation from a recognized organization like the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

    According to the American Kennel Club, most therapy dogs and their handlers go through training to assess the dog’s temperament and their relationship. The dog-human team will then undergo a series of tests observed by a professional instructor.

    If the dog passes these tests and temperament instructions, it can be certified and must register with an official therapy dog organization.

    Bultas also notes that not everyone will want a dog in the classroom, and at her school, a class must be in agreement 100%.

    But despite these challenges, it is clear that nursing students face higher-than-average stress while in school, and therapy dogs can be an effective option to improve their quality of life and reduce their stress levels.

    Because nursing students often spend hours a day in the classroom listening to lectures, implementing the in-classroom therapy model may be the best way to maximize the mental health benefits associated with therapy dogs for nursing students in particular.

    Bultas offers the following tips for anyone interested in starting a therapy dog program in their nursing school.

    • minus

      Review university policy.

      Each school is different, and you must understand what rules exist, if any, regarding bringing dogs on campus.
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      Stay open to feedback.

      Not everyone will be thrilled with your proposition, so remain open to feedback and try to find a solution that addresses all concerns.
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      Pick the dog carefully.

      Especially if you intend on doing in-classroom dog therapy, the choice of dog is crucial. You do not want a high-energy dog that will be distracting or disruptive.
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      Research local therapy dog training chapters.

      If you plan on getting your own dog trained like Bultas, make sure you’ve located a trainer and certification program ahead of time and include all costs and considerations in your memo to the school administration.

    Meet Our Contributor

    Portrait of Margaret W. Bultas, PhD, RN, CNE, CNL

    Margaret W. Bultas, PhD, RN, CNE, CNL

    Dr. Bultas is a Professor at the Trudy Busch Valentine School of Nursing at Saint Louis University. She has taught a variety of classes in the undergraduate and pre-licensure programs. Dr. Bultas has an interest in improving student experiences in the classroom and supporting students’ mental health. Examination support, test-taking strategies, and academic integrity are among some of the works she has published in the area of nursing education. Additionally, Dr. Bultas is a pediatric nurse who is dedicated to improving healthcare outcomes for children with developmental delays and disabilities.