The first year of college can be an overwhelming experience, particularly for those who switch the comforts of home for dorm life. Young adults have to adjust to new professors, new friends and new approaches to school life. While the first taste of freedom can be enticing, it's not uncommon for some students to feel a little homesick. Not surprisingly, some students find it more difficult to cope than others. But it looks like man's best friend might be able to help.
A new University of British Columbia (UBC) study has shown that animal-assisted therapy can help students combat homesickness and could, therefore, be a useful tool in lowering post-secondary drop-out rates. Homesick students are three times more likely than those who manage their homesickness to disengage and drop out of school.
"Given that students who experience homesickness are more likely than their non-homesick cohorts to drop out of university, universities have a vested interest in supporting students during their first-year transition," says assistant professor John Tyler Binfet of UBC's Okanagan campus.
In the study, 44 first-year university students who self-identified as homesick were given a survey to measure levels of homesickness, satisfaction with life and connectedness with campus. Half the students completed eight weeks of dog therapy. The other half was informed that their sessions would begin in eight weeks' time. Dog therapy included 45-minute weekly sessions involving small group interactions with the dogs and handlers, and engagement with other first-year students participating in the study.
Following the initial eight-week session, participants in both the treatment group and the non-treatment group completed the survey again.
Participants who completed the eight-week program experienced significant reductions in homesickness and greater increase in satisfaction with life. Participants reported that sessions "felt like they were at home chatting with friends who brought their puppies," while the non-treatment group reported an increase in their feelings of homesickness.
According to a 2009 report conducted for B.C. Stats, students who left post-secondary happy were almost twice as likely to have felt a sense of belonging compared with students who left unhappy. Students who left university unhappy were almost twice as likely to say they did not feel a sense of belonging on campus.
A total of 29% of students who dropped out cited more interactions and friendships with other students as a factor that would have influenced their decision to stay longer.
While further study is needed, a university's ability to influence campus connections could be a useful tool in lowering drop-out rates in first-year students, says Binfet.
"Moving to a new city, I did not know anyone at the university and became very homesick and depressed," says UBC Okanagan student Varenka Kim. "I was mainly secluded in my dorm room and did not feel like I belonged here. Coming to animal assisted therapy sessions every Friday gave me a sense of purpose and kept me enthusiastic about life."
The study, called "Hounds and Homesickness: The Effects of an Animal-Assisted Therapeutic Intervention for First-Year University Students," was recently published in the journal Anthrozoos.
Photo: John Tyler Binfet, seen with his dog Frances, conducted a study on the effect of pet therapy on homesickness. Binfet runs the Building Academic Retention Through K'9s (B.A.R.K.) program at UBC's Okanagan campus. Courtesy of UBC.