Organizations of all kinds – schools, hospitals, businesses and universities – are embracing research that shows spending time with animals can reduce stress.
While inviting wellness animals into the environments where we work and learn may increasingly be the norm, Dr. Eric Legge says we don’t know a lot about the specifics of how and why it makes us feel better.
“Animal-assisted interventions clearly work, at least in the short term. But the whole area of research is in its infancy,” explains the assistant professor of psychology.
That’s why Eric is focusing the work that happens in his new psychology lab on asking – and answering – some of the many questions about the ways pets enrich our lives and the complex interplay between humans and animals.
For Eric’s students, it’s an opportunity to contribute evidence-based research to a relatively new area of psychology, bolster positive mental health supports and conduct research they care about.
“Students see support animals on campus all the time – it’s something they often have personal experience with, are interested in and are passionate about,” says Eric who strongly believes in giving students agency – the ability to act independently and make choices about their work – in their research.
The approach has led Eric and his students to explore animal behaviour and therapy from several perspectives – whether the mental health of dog owners could affect their pets’ behaviour, how pets’ behaviour might impact the mental health of owners, how pets attach and bond with different family members, trauma and compassion fatigue among animal rescue organization volunteers across Western Canada, and what to do when companion animal behaviour therapy programs become victims of their own success.
“When programs are heavily subscribed, people can end up waiting a long time to interact with an animal,” explains Eric.
So in one line of research, Eric and honours psychology student Alana Zapernick looked at how organizations might maximize their often limited resources by exploring the amount of time people spend with a therapy animal and whether there was a point at which the benefits they gained dropped off. They invited dogs and handlers from CAAWLS, an Edmonton-based not-for profit organization, into the lab to interact with students in a way that mimicked a regular animal behaviour therapy session. They then connected students to devices that measured physiological indicators of stress and asked them to complete surveys about their mood, stress and anxiety at different time points during the session.
Their early findings, currently being written for publication, suggest that benefits from interacting with a wellness animal max out at about 25 minutes, varying slightly depending on whether the benefit is related to anxiety, mood or stress. It’s information with implications that could help organizations, including CAAWLS and MacEwan’s own Pets Assisting With Student Success (PAWSS), shape their programs in ways that serve more people with the same resources.
“Understanding how these programs work and how they can be most efficiently implemented might allow organizations to look at limiting time in a way that increases access without negatively affecting outcomes,” explains Eric. “It’s about helping the most individuals possible.”
Wellness dog on a mission
“...I tried to keep going but she was adamant, so I followed her around a corner and behind a bank of lockers where a student was sitting on the floor sobbing.”