UH Hilo anthropology student researches the benefits of pet therapy

Anthropology student Reyanna Savedra is collecting data on the experiences of students who visit with therapy dogs, as well as researching the benefits of the human-animal bond.

Black dog with three students.
Students at UH Hilo visit with shelter dog Roxie in a study on therapeutic animal interaction. (Courtesy photo)

By Evangeline Lemieux.

An anthropology student at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is researching the use of therapeutic animals, namely dogs, for stress relief. The project is part of a directed study that Professor of Anthropology Lynn Morrison is conducting with senior anthropology student Reyanna Savedra.

Two women and a dog on the library lanai.
From left, student Reyanna Savedra and Professor Lynn Morrison with Roxie, a therapeutic dog, on Mookini Library’s lanai. (Courtesy photo)

The project involves animal petting sessions that have been held weekly on campus since mid-February where UH Hilo students can experience the benefits of therapeutic animal interaction between classes.

“Reyanna needed three credits to graduate, so we started talking about a directed study,” says Morrison. “She’s really into animals and I’m really into animals too. The idea is focused around shelter animals.”

Savedra says they bring in shelter animals that are adoptable and friendly toward people and offer students and faculty the chance to come and pet animals, de-stress, and socialize with other students in campus.

“Adopting from a shelter also provides a better home life for that animal, which is why we bring in shelter animals instead of a trained therapy animal,” says Savedra.

Roxie, the dog who has most recently been part of the program, is one such shelter animal.

“She’s such a sweet girl,” says Savedra. It’s clear that Roxie enjoys interacting with students as much as they enjoy petting her.

Pet therapy

A specialty of Morrison’s is in the study of biomedical and physical anthropology, women’s health, and exploring human-animal interaction. She spoke on the success of therapeutic animal programs in other places. “Lots of schools on the mainland have developed very successful therapeutic animal programs.”

According to Morrison, pet therapy has a variety of benefits for those who engage in it.

“The whole idea behind it is that having a companion animal is beneficial to your health,” Morrison explains. “It lowers your cortisol, it decreases your chances for cardiovascular disease. So if you don’t have a companion animal and you’re away at school, the idea is that having an animal to come to during school time when you’re really stressed out would make you feel better. Your cortisol levels go down, your oxytocin levels go up, heart rate tends to be more moderate, you’re not feeling all stressed out.”

Savedra says short-term, it provides students with happiness.

“They’re given the break that they needed from their studies,” she says. “In some studies, it says that [pet therapy] aids in easing depression and anxiety. I love it, it’s made me more of a dog person.”

Collecting data

Woman poses for photo with the dog Roxie.
Raquel Zane, who works on staff in the College of Arts and Sciences, happily visits with Roxie. (Courtesy photo)

As for the research component, Savedra has been responsible for collecting data on the experiences of students who visit the animals, as well as researching the benefits of the human-animal bond. She and Morrison have developed a questionnaire that asks about things like how participants feel in proximity to the animal during the experience.

“Of course, everyone says this was great, and Roxie has had so many repeat people coming back to see her,” Savedra says.

Savedra and Morrison hope to find a way to continue the program and associated research after Savedra’s graduation this May.

“If I can find students to continue the work that Reyanna has been doing, that would be my goal,” says Morrison. “We would continue to gather data and then we could do a presentation on [the project] at a conference.”

Roxie will be on campus for exam week Monday, May 8, and Wednesday, May 10, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. She can be found in Edith Kanaka‘ole Hall, room 276, from 9:00 a.m. to noon, and out on the Mookini Library lanai from noon to 2:00 p.m.

Story by Evangeline Lemieux, who is double majoring in English and medical anthropology at UH Hilo.

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