Comparing the Effect of Human-Dog Interactions and Progressive Muscle Relaxation on Self-Report and Physiological Measures of Stress

Nicole L. Beasley, Greg C Elvers, Roger N. Reeb, and Hannah L. Torok

Department of Psychology, University of Dayton

This study compares the effects of human-dog interactions and progressive muscle relaxation on stress in college students during the week of their final exams using self-report and physiological measures of stress. Students often cope with stress during the final exams period using various strategies such as spending time with a therapy dog. While students often report that their stress is reduced after visiting with a therapy dog, some studies find physiological evidence for a reduction in stress while others do not. During the first day of finals week, students (N = 53) in an introductory psychology or a research methods course were randomly assigned to spend 15 minutes with a therapy dog or to spend 15 minutes doing a progressive muscle relaxation task. Heart rate variability, a physiological measure of stress, and two self-report measures of stress (the PSS-10 which is a 10 item questionnaire on the participants’ stress level and the SVAS on which the participants mark a visual scale to indicate their current stress level) were measured both before and after the treatments. Compared to the pre-treatment measures, stress was lower after the treatment. Spending time with a therapy dog can reduce stress associated with final exams. However, the intercorrelations between heart rate variability and the self-report measures were not statistically significant suggesting that the measures might correspond to different dimensions of the stress response, as explained in some theories of stress response and emotion. Future research regarding the effects of therapy dogs on stress should include at least one physiological measure of stress and ideally multiple measures. This inclusion might help clarify the underlying psychological and physiological mechanisms leading to stress reduction.

Keywords: therapy dogs, stress reduction, physiological measurement, self-report measurements

Author Note
The authors attest that there are no conflicts of interest with this research.
We thank the Miami Valley Pet Therapy Association for helping us recruit the therapy dogs (Bailey, Kia, Roger, Sadie, Scout, and Teddy) and their handlers (Gerry Coen, Rene Oyola, Melanie Donbar, Mary Watson, Jack Filia, and Paula Brown) who made this project possible. We also thank Kirah Noble for assisting in the collection of the data.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Greg Elvers, Department of Psychology, University of Dayton, 300 College Park, Dayton, OH, 45469-1430, United States. Email:

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