Sociology professor Dr. Colleen Dell is pictured with her Boxer, Kisbey. (Photo courtesy of Colleen Dell)

Online therapy dog program provides comfort during pandemic

USask-led program connects humans and animals

Responses to a survey that asked members of the University of Saskatchewan (USask) community about the PAWS Your Stress Therapy Dog Program highlighted “the power of connection between humans and animals” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Nearly 400 people responded to the survey and we learned that people wanted to visit the therapy dogs primarily to reduce stress, because they missed them and because they wanted to learn about therapy dogs,” said Dr. Linzi Williamson.

“People shared that they would also like to see the dogs playing, performing tricks, training and hanging out in their homes. And as much as people would prefer to see the therapy dogs in person, they would still like to see them online.”

PAWS Your Stress events featuring the therapy dogs started taking place online on April 20, 2020, after the university closed due to the global coronavirus health crisis. Over the summer of 2020, online therapy dog visits took place on Facebook Live (@PAWSYourStress), while recorded videos were shared on additional platforms, including Instagram (@pawsyourstress), Twitter (@PawsStress) and YouTube (PAWSYourStress). Funding for the project was provided by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation and the Office of the Research Chair in One Health and Wellness.

The online survey was conducted from July 10–27, 2020. Williamson (MA’13, PhD’19), a College of Arts and Science alumna and postdoctoral fellow in the office of Dr. Colleen Dell, said the survey responses highlighted “the power of connection between humans and animals, even when physical touch and petting the dogs is not possible.”

As a result of the positive feedback, the therapy dogs and their handlers continued to offer online sessions during the fall 2020 and winter 2021 terms, when the majority of USask classes continued to be delivered remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the program’s regular St. John Ambulance therapy dogs that visited on campus prior to COVID-19 transitioned to online visits, said Dell, a sociology professor and the university’s Centennial Enhancement Chair in One Health and Wellness.

Dell said connection is very important to mental health, and providing connection is what the therapy dog program is all about. In June 2020, Dell’s team worked alongside the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, to develop a poster offering information on how the connection between animals and humans can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety during the pandemic. The poster also provided tips for reducing the harms associated with using alcohol, cannabis and other substances.

“It is pretty clear that this pandemic has been stressful on our collective wellness as a community, while at the same time being an individualized experience. We know that mental health is a concern on the university campus, and without doubt this has been added to with the pandemic—from students dealing with starting the semester physically isolated from their classmates and campus activities, through to instructors trying to prepare their classes for remote delivery,” said Dell.

“The therapy dogs and handlers visited campus prior to COVID-19 because they care, and there is nothing preventing them from continuing to display this care in a virtual environment.”

Transitioning the therapy dog program to an online format required a lot of patience and creativity on everyone’s part—including on the part of the therapy dogs, said Dell.

“That said, our evaluation has shown us that the PAWS Your Stress Therapy Dog Program goals of offering attendees comfort and support was attained, just in a different way,” she said.

PAWS Your Stress, which began in 2014, is a partnership between Dell’s office, Peer Health and the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program. Learn more about the online therapy dog program and the research team behind it by visiting therapydogs.ca.

The program’s campus partners include the Office of the President, Student Health Services, the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, the University Library, the One Health and Wellness Research Chair, Be Well and What’s Your Cap. Off-campus partners include the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction and the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program.

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