Puppy rooms and student well-being

“The animal-assisted therapy (AAT) industry rests on the idea that animals (especially dogs) confer a touch of magic for people with impaired health or well-being. But…that the animals themselves have any such effect is not clear.” John Bradshaw [source]

Back in 2015, I was working at a large Higher Education Institution in Greater Manchester. I was a School’s student support officer, and it was one of many roles I’d held before (and have held since) in the HE sector.

I was also a volunteer ‘home checker’ for the local RSPCA branch at the time, and a fellow branch volunteer also worked at the same HEI. One day she contacted me to let me know that the students’ union was planning to hold a ‘puppy rooms’ event the following day.

At the time, we sprung into action, leaving numerous comments on the event Facebook page in an effort to persuade the organisers to re-think it. 

We’d noted that the puppies were being provided by a business called ‘Puppy Cuddles’ that were charging £300-£400 for the session. We weren’t reassured that welfare of the dogs had been considered seriously enough.

Eventually the event was cancelled, apparently due to the illness of one of the pups, but we felt it more was likely due to the fuss we’d made…

But what are puppy rooms? Who hosts them, and why? And where did the idea come from?

What are puppy rooms?

‘Puppy rooms’ are events most often organised by students’ unions wherein a room (or rooms) is populated by puppies or adult dogs, and students are invited to spend 10-15 minutes ‘cuddling’ or playing with them. Dogs are sometimes ‘on rotation’ so as to allow them some time out, and student numbers at any one time are usually limited.

The aim is predominantly to alleviate exam stress, and they are often scheduled around exam time. More often than not, a charity ‘provides’ the dogs and asks for a small donation (for example, £2-£3 per student) from those attending.

The first puppy rooms event, as far I know, was at the University of San Francisco’s School of Law in 2011, as part of a broader on-campus animal-assisted therapy programme. A further event was hosted at Dalhousie University in Canada in 2012, and it was this event that went internet-viral and seemed to inspire so many others.

Using Google to search for puppy rooms or therapy dog events at Universities and Colleges, I easily found that 42 HEIs have hosted one or more event from 2011 to the present day. 32 were in the UK and Ireland (31 in the UK and one in Dublin) but this predominance is likely to be because of my use of Google’s UK search engine, being based here.

All but 3 of the events were in conjunction with charities, with the most active charity being Guide Dogs for the Blind.

[source: pixabay]

There are massive amounts of positive anecdotal information about puppy rooms, but there is very little existing research on these sorts of activities, though lots of research on animal-assisted interventions in other contexts.

There are some key features of most puppy room events:

  • A focus on de-stressing.
  • Involvement of a charity (usually a ‘service dog’ charity**).
  • A need to book in advance.
  • The requirement of a small donation.

(** The question of whether this necessarily renders the practice an ethical one is a question beyond the scope of my research, but I am mindful of the anthrozoological question mark over the ethics of “employing” animals into service roles. It could be argued that events that support service animal charities are actually for the benefit of humans, and not for animals.)

Most puppy rooms events are sold as ‘animal-assisted therapy’ (AAT), but as I’ll go on to discuss, this isn’t necessarily accurate. It could be described less controversially as an animal-assisted intervention (AAI).

Are HE students actually in need of Animal-assisted therapy?

Before exploring the potential efficacy of AAIs for HE students, it’s important to ask whether students are actually in need of AAT in particular.

[source: YouGov]

The data above are taken from a 2016 YouGov poll exploring self-reported mental health issues amongst the UK student population. 63% said they felt levels of stress that interfered with their day to day lives. 71% said work from university is one of their main sources of stress. And 21% said that university mental health support was “not helpful at all”.

Clearly there is evidence that students do suffer from mental health problems, and it’s entirely feasible that exam stress could exacerbate these.

Whilst they may well benefit from formal animal-assisted therapy, I will ask whether ‘puppy rooms’ are more of an animal-assisted intervention, and therefore, without significant long-term impact on mental well-being. We need to ask if AAI is actually useful as part of a HEI well-being strategy.

Obviously well-being/mental wellness programmes do need to improve. But are puppy rooms the answer?

Puppy rooms: the claims

The majority of new stories reporting on puppy rooms events will feature claims about the health benefits of interacting with dogs; for example:

“Time spent with certified therapy dogs has been shown to relieve stress, decrease heart rate and blood pressure and to increase a general sense of well-being.”
[source]

“Petting an animal, a pet, lowers blood pressure and lowers the heart rate so in the short-term, it’s good to de-stress and bring anxiety levels down..”
[source]

“Research has proven the benefits of animals in improving concentration and reducing stress.”
[source]

“…we know that playing with a dog can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.”
[source]

“Research has shown that petting puppies can reduce the amount of cortisol – a stress-producing hormone – our brains make.”
[source]

But bearing in mind that it is wise to be wary of anecdotal evidence, what does the literature say?

Animal-assisted interventions: the literature

Here I’ll refer to just two rather different sources, and highlight some of the key points they raise.

The Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy was first published in 2001. It explores the history of AAI, its various definitions, as well as its use in a variety of healthcare settings. It also attempts to see AAI from the animals’ point of view and concludes with welfare recommendations and suggested guidelines.

The handbook describes the origin of the concept that ‘animals help’, which was a 1980 study by Friedman et al of 92 cardiac outpatients. The study found that the patients who owned pets lived longer^^, and this prompted many other health-related studies.

There were two popular theories on why this was the case:

  1. That their presence is physiologically ‘dearousing’ (i.e. that it calms and de-stresses).
  2. They provide social support.

(^^ It is important to note that long-term pet ownership is very different from the nature of the puppy rooms events, and that broader lifestyle considerations; e.g. whether dog owners walk more, should be considered.)

But Serpell points out that,

“Although the dearousing effects of animal contact have been demonstrated by a considerable number of …. studies, little evidence exists at present that these effects are responsible for more than transient or short-term improvements in physiological parameters, such as heart rate and blood pressure.”

Kruger and Serpell also warn us to be wary of using the term ‘therapy’. They quote Beck and Katcher, who said that: “It should not be concluded that any event that is enjoyed by the patients is a kind of therapy.”

They actually say that “…the scientific and medical communities will continue to assume little or no long-term beneficial impact of these interventions”.

The handbook explains that animal-assisted therapy is the involvement of an animal in support of a formal programme of therapy, rather than a one-off event. Puppy rooms would therefore not meet this handbook’s definition of AAT, and would be more accurately described as an AAI.

In exploring the animals’ perspective in AAT, Serpell, Coppinger and Fine discuss welfare considerations. They point out that “…the benefits to the animals are by no means always self-evident” and therefore encourage those who employ AAIs to question whether the ends justify the means.

[source: pixabay]

A 2016 study by Barker et al (no really) is the most relevant and up to date that has specifically investigated the impact of visiting therapy dogs on students’ stress levels.

Their study acknowledged the benefits of the exercise, noting that it is cost effective, easily accessible, and with few professional resources needed.

But they also investigated possible reductions in both perceived and physiological stress levels, and concluded that the two did not tally. i.e. Though perceived stress levels lowered, physiological markers did not corroborate this self-assessment. The study also notes that even a drop in perceived stress reduction is not necessarily known to be long lasting.

There are very few studies of this kind exploring students’ stress level, particularly in the longer term. With the benefit seemingly only a perceived one, and potentially short-lived, the question of whether the ends justify the means becomes more relevant.

As I have mentioned previously, with service dog charities providing puppies and dogs for many of these events, and with humans arguably being the ultimate beneficiaries, we might well ask “what’s in it for the animals?”

The most often quoted benefit for animals is puppy socialisation, and there is certainly evidence to show that positive and varied early experiences will help a puppy develop, but there are those who believe the ‘therapy dog visitation’ scenario can be stressful for the dogs involved. Therapy dogs or service dogs may not appear to be stressed, but it would be interesting to measure physiological indicators of stress as such acutely trained dogs may have been encouraged to accept their surroundings. This also raises the question of animal individuality and how those who take part in AAIs are selected.

AAIs: formal guidelines

This leads on to the question of formal guidelines for those practising animal-assisted interventions.

The Animal-Assisted Interventions Code of Practice for the UK was produced by the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) in 2013.

Some key points from the code:

  • It is a voluntary code, meaning that there is no formal requirement for practitioners to adhere to it.
  • It discusses definitions of AAIs and identifies three main categories of animal interventions: AA activity, AA therapy, and AA education.
  • It discusses the animals involved, highlighting the ‘five freedoms’ welfare standard and the Animal Welfare Act (i.e. the relevant law).
  • It talks about assessing the suitability of individual animals and selecting them for “duty”.
  • It outlines the importance of properly planning a programme of therapy and including animal welfare considerations.
  • It stresses the importance of providing a proper induction for anyone involved in AAIs.
  • It discusses the importance of monitoring during any AAIs, and evaluation of success after the event.
  • It recommends an advance site visit, and insurance, and gives risk assessment guidelines.
  • The guidelines document also advises on handler training, encouraging handlers that have animal welfare knowledge and are trained in both human and animal first-aid.
  • It also highlights the relevant health and safety legislation.

I’ve pulled out one quote that I found interesting:

7.4 Equal importance of participants and animals

The physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing of the participants and of the animals is of equal importance and the needs of both these groups should be met.

I wonder if all puppy rooms events are organised and executed with this guidance in mind?

The aims of my own research

So, what are the aims of my own research into puppy rooms events?

I aim to investigate existing practice in HEIs and SUs. I want to question motives and perceived benefits, gathering information on planning, and risk assessment activity.

I’ll look further into existing literature and review my findings in light of these.

Ultimately I aim to develop guidance for HEIs and SUs for the consideration of using puppies or therapy dogs as a ‘stress-busting’ activity for HE students, and ask whether there are any alternative activities that may be clearly beneficial to both humans and animals.

Methodology

I have contacted 36 HEIs and/or charities by email. I included a brief overview of the research project, included an information/ethics and consent form, and asked four questions:

  1. What has been the purpose of hosting or taking part in puppy rooms events in the past?
  2. Was any kind of risk assessment carried out in advance of the event(s)?
  3. Do you still take part in puppy rooms events? If not, why not?
  4. Can you outline what you believe the potential benefits of the events are for both the puppies and the students’ wellbeing?

[source: pixabay]

I will collate responses and consider them in light of existing anthrozoological research. By asking about motives and perceived benefits, I may be able to explore alternative activities, or produce clearer guidance on using AAIs to help alleviate student stress if they are determined to continue the practice.

In order to proceed reflexively, I should acknowledge my own bias:

  • I have worked in HE for 10 years, and in various student support roles.
  • I am undecided about the mutual benefits of AAI to humans and animals, particularly in this context.
  • But I will consider how I pose questions -attempting to use neutral language- and will also seek and consider evidence that supports the puppy room practice.

What might the benefits of the research be?

It may be possible to develop ideas for activities that have a longer term benefit for student well-being.

Activities that contribute to better mental health support may address the issue of University support services being perceived as unhelpful.

HEIs / SUs may consider working with charities that benefit animals directly, rather than humans (e.g. regular group visits to local animal shelters to carry out volunteer activities).

If HEIs/SUs wish to continue the puppy rooms practice, research can help to provide informed guidance on planning, information about risk assessments, and outline key animal welfare considerations.

Summary

’Puppy rooms’ events are prevalent, and they are still popular.

The majority are supported by ‘service dog’ charities.

Poor student mental health is a valid concern, and University support services are often considered ‘unhelpful’.

Animal-assisted interventions are not necessarily beneficial in the long term for those who participate.

AAIs are also not necessarily un-stressful for the animals involved, and more research is needed in this area, in order to better understand the animals’ ‘perspective’.

There are no mandatory guidelines for AAI practitioners in the UK.

Anthrozoological literature and research could help inform much-improved guidance for HEIs and SUs and potentially suggest alternative activities that may be of greater benefit to both students and animals.

And finally…

This is a picture of my own canine companion, Vulpe.

Vulpe is what I would call the opposite of a therapy animal; she is very fearful of new people and dogs, and I think that this highlights the individuality of the animals involved, and the absolute unsuitability of some.

References

  • Aronin, S., Smith, M., Aronin, S. and Smith, M. (2016). YouGov | One in four students suffer from mental health problems. [online] YouGov: What the world thinks. Available at: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/08/09/quarter-britains-students-are-afflicted-mental-hea/ [Accessed 30 Oct. 2017].
  • Barker, S., Barker, R., McCain, N. and Schubert, C. (2016). A Randomized Cross-over Exploratory Study of the Effect of Visiting Therapy Dogs on College Student Stress Before Final Exams. Anthrozoös, 29(1), pp.35-46.
  • Bradshaw, J. (2017). The Animals Among Us: The New Science of Anthrozoology. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Fine, A. Ed. (2006). Handbook on Animal-assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice. Academic Press.
  • SCAS. (2013). AAI Code of Practice (UK). [online] Available at: http://www.scas.org.uk/animal-assisted-interventions/code-of-practice/ [Accessed 30 Oct. 2017].
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