The Impact of Pet-Facilitated Therapy on Self-Reported Test Anxiety in College Students: Multiple Comparisons


Katelyn Fleming


This study illuminates some interesting parallels between the use of pets and self-reported anxiety levels. First employed over 12,000 years ago, this study takes you examines the current implications for the uses of animals in therapeutic modalities. A thorough investigation of the psycho-physiological effects of pet-facilitated therapy lends support to the hypothesis that subjects exposed to the six-year-old canine will reported less anxiety and perform better on a 20-question multiple choice exam, than those subjects exposed to no animals or to an aquarium of goldfish. Marginal significance was found on self-reported anxiety levels between subjects exposed to the canine compared to those subjects exposed to no animals. The report concludes with a discussion of the possible benefits of incorporating pet-facilitated therapy in both healthcare and social situations.


Traditionally, physicians in the health field have prescribed medications for illnesses and ailments. However, professionals are just beginning to consider the fact that man’s best medicine could be his canine friend. Today, there is a new wave of therapeutic techniques involving pets. Pet Facilitated Therapy, or PFT is an applied science using house pets such as dogs, cats, birds, and fish, to help in the treatment of human physical and psychological problems. PFT involves incorporating an animal into an individual’s or group’s immediate surroundings with therapeutic intent. Although skeptics view the use of animals as a therapeutic modality in health care with reluctance, recent research is suggesting that Pet-Facilitated Therapy can lessen depression and anxiety and improve the overall well being and physical health of humans.

As discussed by Netting, Wilson and New (1987), animals were first used therapeutically at the York Retreat in England. Institutionalized patients were provided with small animals such as rabbits and were taught to care for them. Ultimately through the day-to-day interactions, a sense of "attachment" was bestowed. It was not until the end of World War II that dogs, the most popular animal in therapy, were employed in pet-facilitated Therapy. Levinson, a psychologist, discovered the use of dogs in therapy sessions with a child who would not communicate verbally in any social situations. The child interacted with the dog, and thus the dog became a liaison between the psychologist and the child. After this incident Levinson advocated for Pet Facilitated Therapy to be used in all types of psychotherapeutic situations.

There are four types of therapeutic interactions between people and animals that have been described by McCulloch (1985). The first is the "individual companion" or the owned pet. This animal is placed with an individual on a full-time basis. Here, the owner gets the chance to develop a one on one bond with the pet. The second type of therapeutic interaction is the "part time companion." These are animals that are on loan for a temporary amount of time. This would include having a pet come and visit a nursing home several hours a week, as a source of entertainment. Thirdly, is a "mascot," or a group pet that resides in a therapeutic setting like a nursing home. These pets provide companionship for the residents and workers and create a sense of community surrounding the pet. Finally, therapeutic animals can be a part of the "living environment," similar to working on a farm or a residential treatment center. Such animals would be horses that provide riding therapy for people with physical problems.

An example of mascot therapeutic interaction is seen in a study conducted by McCulloch (1985) to promote social interaction. Thirty patients who were withdrawn and uncommunicative were exposed to and encouraged to interact with the dog. Results suggest there was an increase in positive interactions of patients to pets, which included improved relationships with therapists, other staff on the ward, and with patients. The key to the success of pet-facilitated therapy was to introduce a non-threatening pet to help create a bridge to close the social gap between the patients and the physicians. The patients often relate positively to the pet in a non-verbal interaction at first. This eventually leads to strengthened verbal communication and expressions of affection on behalf of the patients to other patients as well as toward the staff in the institution. Dogs seem quite effective in this role because of their perceived ability to offer love and reassurance without criticism.

It has also been suggested by Brasic (1998) that there is a one-year lower mortality rate of pet owners discharged from the hospital coronary care unit. Of a sample of 92 people admitted to a coronary care unit with a diagnosis of a myocardial infarction, 53 patients owned pets. The study found 11 of the 39 who did not own pets, died within a year of admission to the hospital, while only 3 of the 53 pet owners died. Results suggest that although other factors may determine survival after admission to a coronary care unit, pet ownership may prolong survival after discharge from a coronary care unit through various unknown reasons.

In a related study, Anderson (1992) as reported by Heath, compared risk factors for cardiovascular disease against pet owners and non-pet owners. Blood pressure, plasma cholesterol, and triglyceride values of 5741 pet owners and non-pet owners who were screened at a cardiovascular risk clinic were compared. Results concluded that pet owners had significantly lower systolic blood pressure and plasma triglycerides than non-pet owners. Furthermore male pet owners had lower cholesterol levels despite having similar body mass index, smoking habits, and socioeconomic status than non-pet owners.

One of the most recent studies conducted on social interactions between pets and humans and the effects of the cardiovascular health and ability to respond to stressful events was reported by Heath (1999). Following an assessment of baseline blood pressure and heart rate, each participant was subjected to psychological and physical stress such as completing mental arithmetic or having a hand placed into ice water. Their responses to the stress were then assessed as to whether they were alone, in the presence of their pet, or in the presence of their spouse. Allen discovered that increases in heart rate or blood pressure during the mental arithmetic were much lower when a subject’s dog or cat were present. Rates were highest without the presence of the pet while the spouse was present. Results from this study suggest that pets can become such a source of relaxation.

Although Pet-Facilitated Therapy has been employed to alleviate depression in the elderly, provide assistance for people with physical disabilities, and reduce blood pressure in adults, no studies have been conducted involving the use of pets as a relaxation measure for test anxiety. The aim of this study is to systematically replicate a study done by Sarah Ball (2000, unpublished undergraduate thesis by examining self-reported anxiety levels of subjects exposed to a dog while employing a valid negative control with the presence of fish or no animals. Based on past research on the use of dogs in therapy, it is hypothesized that subjects exposed to the dog will have lower self-reported anxiety levels on the POMS subscale and perform better on multiple choice exams, than subjects exposed to an aquarium of goldfish, or exposed to no animals.


Twenty-three students from a small, liberal arts college in New England with ages ranging from 18-22 agreed to participate in the study in partial requirement for General Psychology. Participants were randomly assigned to a control group (n= 8) or one of two experimental groups (n=7 and n=8) respectively. All aspects of the study were in accordance with The American Psychological Association’s standards set forth by the school’s institutional review board.


The study took place in the lounge of the psychology lab over the course of three nights for a duration of nine hours overall. Three dependent measuring tools were used. The first was a sub-scale of the Profile of Mood States Questionnaire, a Likert type survey issued by McNair(1971) (appendix A), measuring anxiety levels. The second was a twenty-question quiz consisting of multiple choice and true or false questions regarding sensation, perception, and biological basis’ of psychology from the Passer and Smith CD ROM that accompanies the general psychology book, Psychology: Frontiers and Applications by McGraw and Hill (Appendix B). To assess subject’s attitudes regarding animals, the Pet Attitude Survey (Templer 1981) (Appendix C) was administered. The dog used in the experiment was a six-year-old Shih Tzu named Sammy who was maintained at a weight of 8 pounds. The goldfish used in the study were housed in the aquarium situated in the psychology lounge. A standard, turn-dial cooking timer was used to ensure all participants did not go over the allotted time to complete the twenty-question test. A standard sheet was placed over the aquarium when the fish were not being used in the testing conditions.


Each of the twenty-three participants entered the psychology lab lounge in individually allotted, 20-minute time slots over the course of three hours. The experiment began at 6:30pm and concluded at 9:30pm on the night anxiety levels and test performance were assessed with the dog. Testing began at 6:00pm and ended at 9:00pm on the proceeding nights for the other two testing conditions. Upon entering the room, the participant was asked to sign an informed consent form (Appendix D). Once completed, the participant was given a sheet with instructions to the participant (appendix E), regarding the study. Stated in the instructions to the participant, for the sole purpose of creating mild test anxiety, was the opportunity to receive extra credit in general psychology class, pending a perfect score. The participant was then informed he was free to use the next five minutes however he desired. This time was designated to interact with the dog, watch the fish tank, or just sit silently for the allotted time. The experimenter jotted down notes as to if the subject interacted with or observed the animals present in the room. At the end of five minutes, the participant was seated at the desk and told to complete the twenty-question test in eight minutes or under. The timer was then set and the participant began working. The bell to the timer sounded at the end of eight minutes and participants were then asked to complete the POMS subscale of anxiety questionnaire. Upon completion of the POMS, the participant was asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their views of animals by completing the Pet-Attitude Survey. After all three of these dependent measures were completed, each participant was given a full written debriefing statement (Appendix E). The debriefing verified that no extra credit was going to be administered and included an explanation for fostering the mild test-anxiety to assess the effects of Pet-Facilitated-Therapy.


A One-Way Analysis of Variance (a = .05) was used to examine the differences on the self-reported anxiety subscales of the Profile of Mood States Questionnaire for subjects exposed to no animals, an aquarium of goldfish, or a dog. The effects of animals on test performance and self-reported opinions of animals were also measured using the One Way ANOVA. As seen in Figure 1, marginal significance was found on self-reported anxiety levels of subjects exposed to the dog in comparison to those subjects exposed to no animals where F(2,20)= 2.583, p=.10. A Post Hoc Tukey was conducted on anxiety levels, comparing exposure to no animals to exposure to the dog. Marginal significance was found at p=.091.


This experiment was an attempt to apply past research on the effects of Pet Facilitated Therapy for individuals with psychological or physical disorders and to examine the possibilities of using animals to relieve anxiety in normal functioning college students. More specifically, this study assessed whether animals are a useful method of reducing anxiety in stressful situations such as test taking. Since marginal significance was found for self-reported anxiety levels of subjects exposed to a dog compared to those exposed to no animals, it is possible that Pet-Facilitated Therapy is a viable means for reducing anxiety levels.

This study was a systematic replication of a study done by Sarah Ball in 2001 at the same accredited institution. Ball reported a decrease in dialostic blood pressure to subjects exposed to the dog compared to baseline levels. A significant increase in blood pressure from baseline to after inducing anxiety with a high pitched noise was found in subjects not exposed to the dog.

Contradictory results for this study compared to Ball’s study could be for a few reasons. First, this study assessed anxiety levels through self-reported measures, while Ball used a blood pressure machine to measure anxiety. After receiving the POMS sub-scale of anxiety participants could have caught on to the purpose of the experiment and employed the self-fulfilling prophecy of reporting the dog made them more relaxed. Second, in this study, mild test anxiety was induced by stating extra-credit would be awarded to participants who received a perfect score while Ball induced anxiety through a series of loud, high-pitched tones. Participants in this study could have been aware that no extra credit would be awarded regardless of test performance and therefore did not experience the intended anxiety. Using the loud noise recordings in Ball’s study would inevitably provoke a certain degree of irritability, thus causing an increase in blood pressure. The fluctuations in blood pressure were a more accurate measure of anxiety than relying on self-reported data.

Finding marginal significance on self-reported anxiety levels of subjects exposed to the dog compared to subjects exposed to no animals could be the fault of the inevitably small sample size. With N=23, the study had poor variance among the group. The diversity of the group was extremely small with only n=2 males and n=21 females, most of whom revered animals as relaxing companions. Allowing a larger sample size could have broadened the spectrum of the results of the three dependent measures.

Another possibility for finding marginal significance could have been the time of night. The two experimental conditions and the control condition were each set up for one night over the course of a three-night period. The only night the dog was used in the testing conditions was during the first night. The second night, the fish in the aquarium were exposed. On the third night, there were no animals present or any other distracting stimulus. By having the three conditions fall under three nights consecutively, intervening variables could not be controlled. Although the room was maintained as consistent as possible, subtle differences such as the position of the chairs or the temperature of the room could have effected the results. More specifically, during the first night, the psychology waiting lounge was extremely overheated. The doors also had to remain shut to keep the dog in, aggravating the problem. On the consecutive nights, the testing conditions remained the same with the doors closed, but the room was not nearly as hot. It could be possible that self-reported anxiety levels under the exposure of the dog, could have been slightly lower, had the temperature in the room been less extreme.

The results make it difficult to determine whether the dog’s presence made a difference in anxiety levels or if it was the experimenter’s presence in the lab. For safety precautions with the canine, participants could not be left alone in the room. Inevitably, subjects would initiate conversations with the experimenter, thus creating a different atmosphere. The experimenter’s response was always simple and concise, being careful not to continue the conversation any longer than necessary. It was observed that every participant exposed to the dog during the anxiety testing, began a conversation with the experimenter. Such questions as "What is the dog’s name?" or "Is the dog getting plenty of water since it is hot in here?" often were precursors to statements regarding their opinions of dogs, as well as anecdotal stories about their own dogs at home. As pointed out McCulloch (1985), one of the reasons for the success of Pet Facilitated Therapy is the animals acts as a social catalyst, breaking the ice in uncomfortable or anxiety provoking situations, allowing the participant to share his feelings and fears. Only one female out of the eight participants exposed to the fish tank started a conversation. All other subjects stared down at the desk or glanced over periodically at the fish tank, but no one seemed to notice its presence. Consistent with previous studies, participants not exposed to the dog seemed the most physically anxious of the three groups, often shaking their leg against the floor or tapping the pencil against the table. Three of the eight no animal exposure participants asked what questions would be on the written quiz. Evidence from these observations supports that the dynamic of the testing room environment was considerably more tense and intimidating when no animals were present as distracters.

Distracters, or stimuli that focus the attention away from what is being tested, could have influenced the self-reported anxiety levels. In this experiment, the aquarium of goldfish was used as the distracter from the anxiety of taking the test. Similar to the dog, the fish were present to provide a relaxing stimulus before the test. However, since most of the subjects who were exposed to the fish did not seem to notice them, using larger or brighter fish could be a more effective distracter. Also, placing an animal or fish directly in front of the participant might be a more effective distraction, rather than watching a stimulus from across the room.

No significance was found was on the 20-question multiple choice and true-false exam by McGraw and Hill. Only having a slight variation in test scores suggests that the score is not a reflection anxiety, but rather knowledge. Each of the participants was enrolled in General Psychology and had less than two months background of class before taking the quiz. Since the majority of questions involved sensation, perception, and the biology of the brain, many of the students did not have a strong background in the subject content. It is possible that the test score might not be a reflection of test performance under anxiety, but rather a reflection of the knowledge about sensation, perception, and the biological basis of the brain.

The third dependent measure assessed in this study was the subjects’ opinions regarding animals on the Pet Attitude Survey. The main reason for finding no significance between groups was that all participants highly regarded pets as important in their lives’. All participants reported having some type of pet in their household as well. Perhaps if the study had prescreened its participants with regards to their opinions of animals, a more diverse subject pool could have been created.

Because this study does show promise with marginal significance in anxiety levels of subjects exposed to a dog compared to no animals, further research should be implemented. Replicating this study, but substituting self-reported measures for blood pressure machines or even using biofeedback could be a more effective measuring tool. Also, comparing individual anxiety levels across three settings using a Latin Square Design could give more accurate results. More research should be done comparing two pets that participants can interact with, to an animal that can just be watched. Using a dog in one condition, a rabbit in another, and the fish in the third could help unveil whether the physical interaction is an effective distracter for reducing anxiety, or if it’s the animals themselves that control anxiety levels. Only through further research and studies, can the psycho-physiological benefits of using animals in reducing anxiety continue to be examined and implemented as an effective, therapeutic technique.


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