Pet therapy brings paw-sitive benefits for students

School of Health in Social Science staff and students co-design pioneering project to deliver benefits of time spent with dogs.

Furry, four-legged friends are at the heart of a wellbeing programme that plans to draw on dogs’ natures to enhance student welfare at the University of Edinburgh.

Paws on Campus – a first of its kind in the UK – could provide a novel style of support for students experiencing stress and anxiety. During the sessions, students spend an hour with a therapy dog, taking part in guided relaxation exercises which benefit the humans and animals.

A student holds her hand up above a dog's head. The dog, a cocker spaniel, looks at her hand expectantly.
Paws on Campus trial session

The programme was co-designed by students and staff from the University’s School of Health in Social Science and Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

Each session focuses on specific learning outcomes and therapeutic objectives that have been designed to help students reflect on their own challenges and recognise the connections between their wellbeing and an animal’s welfare needs.

The sessions flow really well and it has been great learning the various grounding and awareness techniques that you can also do in your own time. I found it made mindfulness – something that I struggled with before - so much easier when there is a dog to focus on

Wholesome collaboration

Paws on Campus has been trialled in collaboration with Canine Concern Scotland’s Therapets Service, which provided the registered dogs and their handlers.

The programme’s use of psychological principles differs to other pet therapies, being the first of its kind to combine student mental health and animal welfare through a series of planned sessions.

The Paws on Campus programme builds on studies conducted at the University of Washington and University of British Columbia in the US.

Creators of the programme, Professor Jo Williams and Laura Wauthier of Clinical and Health Psychology at the School of Health in Social Science, and Dr Andrew Gardiner from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, are hoping it can be used to deliver benefits to students.

Following trial sessions towards the end of 2022, the team are looking into ways they can link the programme with the University’s student wellbeing services.

Paws on Campus has been supported by the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme for the first year to refine the sessions and put in place an evaluation framework to ensure the programme meets the needs of students.

The University of Edinburgh offers a range of counselling and wellbeing services to its students, including to one-to-one counselling, a 24/7 Listening Service, wellbeing workshops, and guided self-help and online support packages.

A happy looking golden retriever lies on a patterned dog bed, receiving pets from several different hands.
Four-legged friend at Paws on Campus

Paws on Campus is a great opportunity to have fun, learn about the subtle cues that dogs use to communicate and provide students with a range of skills to support their wellbeing. We are hoping that the project will create a framework for university campus dog programmes that can be used nationally and internationally.

Perhaps more than most, vet students understand the well-being benefits to be had from interacting with animals. They are also aware that such sessions should be fun and anxiety-free for the animals too, so an important part of the programme will be to assess the impact on the volunteer dogs as well as the participating humans.

Related links

Paws on Campus at the University of Edinburgh

Student Counselling


Images - Neil Hanna Photography