Sure, dogs provide unconditional love. But they also relieve stress, and that may help make you a better student.

You've had a horrible day.

You're in no mood to cook.

And you just got a ticket for running a red light.

If you're a dog owner, none of that will matter when you walk through the door.

With the simple wag of their tails, dogs have an extraordinary ability to instantly change your mood. They're eager to hear about your day, ecstatic to follow you around, content to curl up at your feet and thrilled at the prospect of cuddling for a moment or two.

If you're a student, they love late-night study sessions.

Dogs are loyal and loving. They sense when you're sad.  

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

More and more, research suggests what we know in our hearts to be true: dogs have an uncanny ability to positively influence health and relieve stress.

Research on human-animal interaction

A recent study from Tufts University's veterinary medicine school on human-animal relationships demonstrates that that people often turn to their pets in times of emotional stress as a source of comfort and psychological support

The study found that children in military families who have a strong attachment to a pet have better coping skills overall when at least one parent is deployed, indicating that positive relationships with companion animals may be beneficial, particularly during times of stress.

That's a topic worth thinking about during April – National Stress Awareness Month.

It's the same month during which many college students are facing end-of-term papers and final exams.

A doggone good outlet for stress

Of course, feeling stressed during exam time is perfectly normal. But learning to find a healthy outlet – for instance, a 15-minute walk with your favorite four-legged friend – to rejuvenate between study sessions could be the most important lesson you learn.

In November, Saint Leo University Counseling Services teamed up with TranquilPawz, an all-volunteer group of registered therapy dogs and dog handlers, to bring therapy dogs to campus. Offering nuzzles and nudges, the furry ambassadors had a singular goal: to help promote stress management.

"Research has suggested that both heart rate and chemicals associated with a stress reaction such as cortisol can be reduced through interaction with a new pet," says Saint Leo Psychology Professor Dr. Kevin Kieffer. "In fact, in some of this research, findings have suggested that interacting with a new pet can reduce stress related chemicals and heart rate more than interacting with a human friend."

A USA Today article cites similar findings. "Research shows that interaction with pets decreases the level of cortisol – or stress hormone – in people and increases endorphins, known as the happiness hormone," the article says.

Not ironically, that story headline reads: "For stressed college students, a doggone good way to relax".

Does that mean Fido can help you become a more successful student?

Of course, breaking your study session to play with a furry friend won't guarantee you'll ace your exams, but a positive pet interaction could give you the break you need to refocus, relax and get back on track.

Stressed Out?

Started by the Health Resource Network in 1992, National Stress Awareness Month increases public awareness about the causes and dangers of stress and promotes successful coping strategies.

Stress is a normal part of life, but it's important to recognize when enough is enough. And it's important to seek help. Like most colleges and employers, Saint Leo University offers access to counseling services – for students online and on the ground.

ULifeline, an online resource for college mental health, lists the following warning signs that could indicate you are struggling with too much stress:

  • Inability to concentrate or complete tasks
  • Get sick more often with colds
  • Body aches
  • Other illnesses like autoimmune diseases flare up
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying awake
  • Changes in appetite
  • More angry or anxious than usual

Dogs aren't the only way to relieve stress, of course. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a number of ideas to relax and unwind:

  • Take a walk
  • Go for a run
  • Have a cup of tea
  • Play a sport
  • Spend time with a friend or loved one
  • Meditate
  • Do yoga

Does your dog or cat help you feel less stressed? Tell us how in the comments below!

Image Credit: Roger costa morera on Shutterstock

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