SEP 14, 2016 12:35 PM PDT

Playing Fetch with Fido Can Reduce Homesickness

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham
Making the transition to a new environment, be it school or work, can be tough in itself. But when people have to face these challenges alone away from the comforts of home, the difficulty can seem insurmountable.

There’s good news, though! A recent study found that 45-minute weekly sessions with a canine companion may be just the cure for homesickness. This is particularly of value for homesick first-year college students who risk dropping out without intervention.

Study supports playing with dogs to reduce homesickness | Image: pixabay.com
"Transitioning from high school to university can prove to be a challenge for many first-year students," said John Tyler Binfet, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus, first author of the study.

To study whether pet therapy can help students overcome homesickness, Binfet and his colleague, Holli-Anne Passmore, devised a straightforward experiment. They recruited 44 first-year college students who self-identified as suffering from homesickness. Only half of the group received 45-minute sessions with therapy dogs for eight weeks. At the end of the eight weeks, the students completed surveys again pertaining to their level of homesickness, satisfaction with life, and connectedness to their campus surroundings.

Compared to baseline levels, students who had interactions with the therapy dogs had reduced levels of loneliness and homesickness. This trend also held up when compared to the group that did not receive any pet therapy. In fact, those who weren’t treated reported feeling worse at the end of the eight weeks.

"Homesick students are three times more likely than those who manage their homesickness to disengage and drop out of university,” said Binfet. Thus, he notes that this could be a cheap and effective way to boost retention rates for college students. "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."

Pet therapy has already gained traction (and lots of smiles) in other areas of medicine. Though dogs are often used, the term refers broadly to any type of animal-assisted therapy or activities that help humans cope with problems. And the problems may range from physical, such as heart disease and cancer, to mental illnesses, like anxiety, depression, and autism. The treatment is so effective for patients and for family members that it’s becoming routine service offering in many well-known hospitals, such as the Mayo Clinic and the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
 

Indeed, if playing with a canine companion for a few minutes a day could help alleviate homesickness, perhaps this safe and non-drug treatment should be advocated more widely, especially in university settings.

"Moving to a new city, I did not know anyone at the university and became very homesick and depressed. 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," said Varenka Kim, UBC Okanagan student who is now a believer in ‘a man’s best friend.’

Additional sources: University of British Columbia, Okanagan, Mayo Clinic
About the Author
I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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