Taking a paws: Therapy dogs a growing mental-health resource
Every Wednesday afternoon Carleton University computer-science major Carter Black finishes his classes with the usual university-related stress of looming deadlines and responsibilities.
But Black is among an increasing number of students turning to therapy dogs to deal with it all. In this case, the dog is named Blue.
“I visit weekly and it’s been five weeks,” said Black while sitting down beside Blue. “It’s nice having a break in the middle of a long day and it’s great to not worry about anything like midterms or marks. The winters are so long and Blue is an escape from everything.”
Blue turns to Black and affectionately lies on his side with the four other students in the small office erupting into endearing laughter as Black scratches behind the ears of the five-year old Great Dane mixed breed therapy dog. Shannon Noonan, an animal-assisted student retention co-ordinator with the university and Blue’s personal handler, watches with a smile from her office desk.
An increasing demand for dogs in institutions
Blue’s weekly visiting hours on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons are one of the many examples of therapy dogs being increasingly integrated as mental-health resources in post-secondary institutions across the country.
“The subject of mental health is increasing on a societal level and the dogs are being invited as a consequence of that. In the last two years it’s definitely exploded,” said Irene Valmas, director of communications and public relations for animal-assisted therapy organization Therapeutic Paws of Canada (TPOC).
Since 2002 TPOC has overseen what was initially a small initiative for visiting senior citizens in retirement homes, expand into a national volunteer-based organization with 600 therapy dog teams and numerous programs directed at supporting children, seniors, and most recently, university students.
Julie Davies is the program manager for Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD), which has nearly 100 therapy dog teams in the region. She says it is difficult to keep up with demand.
“There has definitely been an increase in the number of inquiries we’ve received from local colleges and universities in the past few years.” Davies said. “Until recently, our board of directors had placed a moratorium on any new post-secondary programs because we lacked sufficient resources to co-ordinate additional programs.”
Treatment or just treats? The efficacy of therapy dogs
The increasing demand for therapy dogs has not come as a surprise to many, considering the results of various studies, including a 2015 study across three Canadian universities titled PAWSING Student Stress.
“Analyzing a sample of 403 students and 16 handlers/observers at the events and 87 students at follow-up, we found that the therapy dogs unequivocally offer love and support to students,” wrote Colleen Anne Dell and her fellow researchers. ‘Support’, they wrote, “is understood as destressing and relaxing by interacting with the dogs.”
A 2016 study titled Hounds and Homesickness from the University of British Columbia followed with a focus on a sense of belonging and safety facilitated with the support of therapy dogs.
“Homesick students are three times as likely to disengage and drop out of university than are students not suffering from homesickness,” the study stated. “From beginning to end of the program, participants in the treatment group evidenced reductions in homesickness and increases in satisfaction with life and connectedness to campus.”
Dr. Shelley Parlow, an associate professor in the psychology department at Carleton University additionally described how therapy dogs on university and college campuses can be of great benefit, even for the most bright and prepared students.
“Around final exams these student union groups bring in dogs and from a psychology point of view this is interesting because we know that we should have more proactive approaches with dogs readily available throughout the year. Test anxiety is something that can impact health and it’s been proven that the dogs do help lower high blood pressure.”
With a strong presence in children’s health care and with seniors in retirement residences, Davies agreed with the physiological benefits of therapy dogs in post-secondary students, with Ottawa Therapy Dogs managing to introduce an English bulldog named Dozer visiting Carleton University on Tuesdays.
“This is a good overview of many of the benefits we see in animal-assisted therapy. It’s been described that just stroking a dog can lower heart rate, reduce blood pressure and release hormones like serotonin and oxytocin,” Davies said.
Taking a paws for dog safety and stress relief
Despite having positive physiological benefits, Parlow warned of the risks students may face with having out of control animals on campuses.
“A dog could bite somebody, scare somebody, and they could really affect people who have severe allergies. This can be problematic because sometimes the hair and dander can be left in the air where the dog was and it can contaminate the space,” she said.
Nancy Delcellier, the director of environmental health and safety at Carleton University described the need for keeping track of therapy animals with requiring individuals to declare them and show proof of their training. She also said that this rule is also in place to protect the animals themselves.
“We really have to work with our resources if someone is for example, working in a chemistry lab with a lot of acids. From a health and safety view we have to ensure that the animal is also being introduced in a safe environment and that they’re being kept safe,” she said.
The process of getting therapy dog certifications through various organizations such as St. John Ambulance requires a large commitment, including evaluations of the dog and handler, a criminal record check, and consistent vaccinations, according to Noonan.
A long-eared basset hound by the name of Uncle Steven was introduced as the on-site therapy dog for Carleton University’s MacOdrum Library in April 2017, and has since attracted many students to the library and its resources, according to Steven’s owner and head of cataloguing and collection maintenance, Erika Banski.
“Staff and students were really warmed and happy by Uncle Steven. We had many students often post on Instagram and we actually renamed our guide for new students with Uncle Steven as a promotion tool,” Banski said.
Noonan celebrated Dozer’s arrival and Uncle Steven’s popularity in the midst of the busy school year as she described a need for normalizing the therapy dog experience.
“We want to get other employees involved in what I do so that we can have multiple therapy dogs stationed across campus,” Noonan said. “We’re not reaching as many people by having people quickly see and pet a dog in passing in one busy spot. Students can’t rely on that.
Noonan’s office is full of dog toys and pillows. Blue’s wagging tale and the joy he brings to students have kept her intent on continuing the initiative for the foreseeable future.
“Coming after class to spend time with Blue makes me so happy,” said first-year journalism student, Lauren Stokes. “He can sense when I’m stressed and when people aren’t nice, Blue is always nice.”
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