In 2013, 11% of the US population experienced serious psychological distress. This problem of psychological distress is exacerbated in colleges and universities, where more than half of students report experiencing moderate to severe depression. In spite of the prevalence of this psychological distress, the vast majority of these students do not receive treatment. To address the problem of psychological distress among students, many universities have instituted animal visitation programs (AVPs). These popular programs provide opportunities for participants to interact with animals (usually dogs), with the goal of alleviating distress. However, empirical evidence for the effectiveness of these programs is lacking. We therefore conducted a randomized controlled trial to evaluate the influence of a single, brief interaction with a dog on the subjective experience of anxiety and mood in a sample of students and medical residents (n=67). We compared the impact of interactions with a dog to the effects of viewing (but not interacting with) the same dog, and the effects of a no-treatment control. We found that interacting with a dog reduced anxiety and negative mood, and increased positive mood relative to the control conditions. These effects were large, providing direct support for the model of AVPs already in widespread use in colleges and universities, as well as primary schools, hospitals, dentist's offices, courthouses, nursing homes, airports, and Veteran's Affairs facilities. In addition, our findings suggest that future research on AVPs is needed to elucidate when and how these are most potent. The results of that research may be used to maximize the benefits of these programs, which are already so widespread.
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