Man’s best friend helps mental health 

Man’s best friend helps mental health 

Research at Saint Louis University (SLU) has found that integrating a therapy dog into the classroom increases mental health support for nursing students. 

Margaret Bultas, a professor at SLU’s Trudy Busch Valentine School of Nursing, is an experienced nurse educator who currently teaches pathophysiology. She has also taught courses on growth and development, child health nursing, essentials of therapeutic nursing, and health assessment in the undergraduate and pre-licensure programmes.

Bultas says her work in improving student experiences at SLU has stemmed from previous research centred on improving health outcomes for children with developmental delays and disabilities. “I have to set up my nursing classroom for success by creating a positive and supportive environment,” she adds.

Bultas observed increasing stress and anxiety levels amongst her nursing students and began incorporating mindfulness interventions into the classroom to improve mental health outcomes. She next explored the feasibility and acceptability of bringing a therapy dog to campus in a pilot study published in the Journal of Nursing Education

SLU has implemented a policy to allow responsible dog owners to bring their dogs to work to promote employee morale, job satisfaction, and a pleasant work environment. Bultas says bringing dogs to campus for a day reduces stress and anxiety, although only momentarily.

“Students are stressed all semester. We bring a dog in, which calms them for an hour, but next week the dog’s gone. It’s a short-term fix, not a long-term solution,” Bultas elaborates. “I was interested in learning if the regular presence of a dog would reduce stress for my students over time.”

The study included 67 bac­calaureate nursing students. Bultas taught two sections of a course: one section with a therapy dog and one sec­tion without. At the end of the course, participants in the intervention group showed improvement in stress, anxiety, and happiness, whereas participants in the control group did not demonstrate improvement.

Jessie, the therapy dog used in this intervention, is a three-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. These are known to be gentle dogs with even temperaments and kind faces, says Bultas, and Jessie was an excellent fit for the classroom.

Students interacted physically with the dog before class, during a break, and after class. To reduce distraction, Jessie remained in her bed at the front of the classroom during class; she did not roam the room. A research assistant was available to remove the dog if she became distracted, but Bultas says that never occurred, noting that students reported positive feelings and benefits from the therapy dog’s presence. “We teach students to care for the whole person and we as faculty model this approach as we teach and care for our students,” she emphasises.

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