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Student’s best friend: UMKC professor’s research brings therapy dog to classroom

Ask communications professor Linda Kurz about her decades of research and teaching, and she’ll reveal an unexpected inspiration: her 12-year-old Polish lowland sheep dog, Max.

Kurz is passionate about helping students thrive in public speaking scenarios. She also adores her “shaggy dog,” who she insists is like “one of her children.” Naturally, when the idea came to blend these two loves into one unique research question, it quickly became Kurz’s central focus— one she’s been studying since 2009.

“I was reading one day about how patients were being treated with therapy dogs at the Los Angeles Heart Institute,” Kurz recalled. “I thought, ‘If they can help with those kinds of conditions, would a therapy animal help reduce moderate to severe anxiety in a public speaking class?’”

Kurz and rescue dog Max had already completed a therapy animal class and certification. Kurz remembers that the process included kids running, screaming and throwing things across the room to see how Max would react.

The canine’s next test? A college campus.

Linda Kurz says she and her dog Max have “grown old together.”

After Kurz consulted a review board and collected student permission slips, Max made his classroom debut in one of Kurz’s introductory public speaking courses. Due to the nature of the study, students could opt out and leave class at any time— an anxious speaker’s dream. Yet, according to Kurz’s research Max’s presence helped them stay and push through the nerves.

“Before her speech, one student reported that she couldn’t go through with it and was getting ready to leave the class,” Kurz detailed.

“Then, she saw that my dog was sitting there.”

Kurz said she will always remember watching as the young woman took Max’s leash and lead him to the front of the room, where he sat right beside her. When her voice started to waver, Kurz saw Max move closer.

“She said that, at that time, she realized she could make it through the speech,” Kurz recounted.

The rest of the group reported similar results. In particular, Kurz remembers the marked change in a shy pre-med student who had previously admitted to taking two Valium pills before each class period.

It’s powerful stories like these Kurz relies on when other scholars dismiss her work as “cute” or “crazy,” criticisms she says she hears often.

In fact, Kurz believes this research now stands with more validity than ever, as animals have become a prominent method of helping the anxious, elderly and other populations.

Though she once felt like one of the only scholars researching the phenomenon, Kurz now attends conferences like the Human Animal Interaction Conference, which brings together those studying the “human-animal bond.”

For Kurz, this connection can be seen in the photos of her and Max that she always has ready to show. As she beams at a picture of her long-haired companion, she laughs and turns to ask a question.

“Don’t you just think students would love him?”

 

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