You can command a dog to heel. But can you tell Fido to heal as well?
That's a question St. Ambrose Professor of Psychology Katie Trujillo, PhD, and a group of five student researchers set out to answer scientifically with the help of 25 volunteer research subjects and a half dozen four-legged friends.
"The impact of interaction with dogs on psychological measures of stress" was among three research topics covered during the Second Annual SAU Undergraduate Summer Research Institute, a program made possible by two generous donors.
Trujillo's interest was piqued by her experience as a therapy dog owner in the Caring Canines program at Trinity Health Systems.
The professor said it is widely assumed dogs and other therapy animals have a positive impact on hospital patients who welcome their presence. But, she said of animals in hospitals, "They do present risks. The hospital has concerns. It has to consider risks, liabilities and benefits. So we are trying to get at that question: What is the real benefit?"
Trujillo and a student research group consisting of seniors Marie Adams, Andrew Friederich and Jennifer Rushton, sophomore Zoe Harris and first-year student Aubrey Graham spent a couple weeks establishing a study process. In July, they conducted their tests.
Stress was induced in test subjects through a word game contrived to frustrate, after which heart and pulse rates were measured. Volunteers then were given time with a therapy dog, a stuffed "control" dog or no dog at all. Most often, the initial physiological measures showed stress was reduced to varying degrees.
And so? Can Fido heal?
Well, Trujillo and her team didn't quite collar the answer. A bigger group of test subjects is needed to more accurately measure the effect, Trujillo said. "We want to work on improving the way we take physiological measurements and also consider the impact of having a dog present during stressful events, rather than right after."
Even without conclusive results, the summer project will serve as a starting point for a research practicum this semester. "We have built something that is going to be expandable for the future," said Adams, who hopes to research Post Traumatic Stress Disorder while pursuing graduate studies in counseling. "Just because we didn't find something conclusive doesn't mean we didn't find anything. This is a steppingstone for something bigger."
Members of the student team said they achieved their primary summer goal of learning more about the research process. They learned something else, too: Dogs rock.
In fact, they are wondering if dogs might not be the perfect solution to Finals Week stress.
"Video games and massages only go so far," Adams said.
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