Delaware Valley University Students Study Stress in Therapy Dogs

Apr 30, 2018

Students take a saliva sample from a therapy dog.
Credit: Delaware Valley University.  From left: Francesca Lanfranchi ’18 and Kelly Gruber ’18 take a saliva sample from Holly, a therapy dog, to test cortisol levels.

A lot of research has looked at how therapy dogs impact the people they serve, but not many projects have examined how being a therapy dog impacts the animal. Two Delaware Valley University students are partnering with Roxy Therapy Dogs, a local organization, to study stress in therapy dogs. The research is aimed at improving the experience for the dogs. 

Kelly Gruber ’18 and Francesca Lanfranchi ’18, two small animal science majors, are doing the research as a joint project for DelVal’s Student Research course.

A student takes a video of therapy dog on a phone.
Credit: Delaware Valley University.  Kelly Gruber ’18 takes a video of Sam, a greyhound, during a session. 

“We both love this work,” said Lanfranchi. “I couldn’t have asked for a better project. The work that we’re doing is going to help make sure the dogs enjoy being here.”

The students swab the dogs’ mouths to check cortisol levels before and after sessions working with people. The owners take videos of the dogs at home that the students then compare to videos of the dogs while they are working. The students use the videos to check for visual signs of stress. The home videos help the students determine if what looks like a sign of stress is actually unusual for the dog. 

A tube containing a sample of saliva from a therapy dog named Trixie.
Credit: Delaware Valley University. Kelly Gruber ’18 holds a cortisol sample from Trixie, a therapy dog

Student Research is a course that is offered through DelVal’s signature Experience360 Program (E360). Through the E360 Program, 100 percent of the University’s undergraduate students gain real-world experience before graduation. Students complete a variety of experiences through the program and reflect on their experiences throughout the process.

Dr. Jennifer Shelly and Dr. Gary Fortier, faculty members from the Department of Animal Biotechnology and Conservation, are serving as advisors for the project. Dr. Fortier has a Ph.D. in animal behavior, and Dr. Shelly has a degree in veterinary medicine. Dr. Shelly serves on the board of Roxy Therapy Dogs and connected the students with the project. 

A therapy dog next to a child who is reading a book.
Credit: Delaware Valley University. Freya, a golden retriever, working with local children. 

“I feel lucky,” said Gruber. “I talk to my friends from other schools when I go home, and they’re blown away that I get to have this hands-on experience. They allow us to do a lot at DelVal.”

Both Gruber and Lanfranchi have been accepted to veterinary school. Gruber plans to attend The University of Missouri and, Lanfranchi plans to attend Midwestern University.

To learn more about Roxy Therapy Dogs, please visit