Lovable dogs are an increasingly common sight on university campuses around exam time, with petting and cuddling sessions aimed at helping students de-stress ahead of finals.
The canine encounters are backed up by serious scholarship: a Canadian study published last month found that such sessions can help students to reduce their stress levels by 45 per cent.
Very little academic attention has been paid, however, to the role of the dogs in such endeavours – until now, that is.
At the annual conference of the British Sociological Association, held at Northumbria University from 10 to 12 April, academics were set to ask a question that is probably yet to occur to most human attendees of on-campus pooch parties: are the dogs taking part pets or workers?
To answer this, Nickie Charles, director of the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Women and Gender, and Carol Wolkowitz, reader in the institution’s sociology department, observed therapy dog visits and carried out 16 interviews with dog owners, students and library staff.
Their conclusion? “They are working,” Professor Charles told Times Higher Education. “[The dogs] have to behave in a particular way, which involves work and effort. They are really tired at the end of it.”
The implications of this finding might not mean much for the dogs’ employment rights, apart from a bumper helping of doggy biscuits. Their owners are volunteers, after all. Professor Charles and Dr Wolkowitz found that several of the dogs they studied got excited when they saw their "uniform" being readied or arrived on campus – and that owners were very attentive to their pets’ wellbeing, although they also discovered that the dogs found the sessions quite tiring.
But Professor Charles argued that attempting to understand petting sessions from the “dogs’ point of view” as well as the students’ could offer a “more multi-faceted understanding of the interaction that’s taking place”.
“There’s an approach that says that animals are just there for us to put to work and use them as we see fit. It’s time we started to think more carefully about that,” she said.
There is a lesson here not just for students and universities organising puppy petting, Professor Charles argued: her academic colleagues should take note too.
“Societies wouldn’t be the way they are if animals were not part of them – and sociologists for a long time completely ignored that,” she said. “I think it’s important to understand the contribution animals make to fully understand what society is about.”