Carleton’s Therapy Dog Program is one of the most recognized and beloved programs on campus. Our Handler Teams, comprised of Carleton University staff and faculty members and their adorable dogs, are officially back on campus after a pause due to COVID-19.

Carleton’s Therapy Dogs can be visited during their office hours in locations across campus, as well as partnering with key Student Service centres to offer visits to broaden students’ exposure to different areas and communities on campus. Together with their handlers, the Therapy Dogs offer a welcoming, supportive environment that can provide a low-intensity, yet effective strategy to cope with mental health challenges or other stresses.

Many people say that visiting with the dogs simply brightens their day, while others may be struggling and looking for someone who will listen without judgment and gain more meaning from the experience. Tangible results are also seen in levels of confidence, social interactions, connectedness, and general satisfaction at Carleton University. More often than not, a student that opens up about an ongoing issue will be effectively referred to another appropriate resource, due to the trust and bond that is formed over the connection with the animal. All of the handlers are Carleton staff and faculty members, who have received a base level of mental health training.

The Background

With three cohorts of students starting on campus for potentially the first time, we are seeing students struggling with their mental health and wellness trying to adjust to this new life. Many students experience homesickness, isolation, and can struggle to ask for help. Our Therapy Dog Program can support in breaking down those barriers to help-seeking, including hosting office hours in spaces that might be seen as intimidating, educating students on key service areas, and facilitating connections between students, our dogs, and our handlers.

With 24% of youth (ages 16-24) reporting moderately severe to severe depression and 42% reporting moderate to severe anxiety (Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2022), the Therapy Dog Program allows us to speak with students about our mental health and wellness services while students are benefiting from animal-assisted therapy by interacting with our Therapy Dogs. Our students have said that our dogs “are a great way to help people connect with each other over a common interest” and that the Therapy Dog Program “supports mental health in the best way.

Whether students are interacting with our dogs because they miss their pets, they need a dose of unconditional love, or they simply needed a connection point, our entire community benefits from having our Therapy Dog Program running on campus. The joy that our dogs bring to our community has lasting effects on our students and is one of the programs students continue to chat about even after graduating.

The Rollout

Funds raised will be used to support another year that the Therapy Dog Program can continue to grow, thrive, and maintain its reputation as a viable strategy for mental health and wellness on campus. In addition to the basic requirements of training and onboarding in order to run the program, we are reinventing many of our program aspects pre-COVID while also further connecting the program to our Student Mental Health Framework 2022-2026:

  • Each dog has a business card which refers students to a different mental health support, and these are collected like trading cards
  • Refreshed and re-branded Therapy Dog vests and Handler polos
  • Expanding our Therapy Dog Team to allow for increased office hours and visits across campus
  • Ongoing training for Therapy Dog Handlers
  • Program evaluation

We will continue to develop innovative ideas so that our dogs can be seen as advocates on campus, support initiatives and programs around mental health and wellness, and continue to fill gaps and break down barriers in seeking support.

The Impact

The Carleton Therapy Dog Program is one of the most beloved programs on campus, with students, staff, faculty, and our Alumni all talking about how much the program means to them. Our furry friends are incredibly proud to bring so much light and love into the lives of many.

Studies have demonstrated that interacting with Therapy Dogs can calm the nervous system, promotes physical and emotional health, releases “feel-good” hormones in both the dog and the human, helps to humanize environments, and can decrease loneliness. Even throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic, our students benefited from just seeing our dogs, “…just seeing the dogs make me happy. They have this energy that is wonderful” and “getting to relieve stress while seeing my favourite animal, plus [it] helps me not feel so homesick when thinking about my pets back home”. Our first visit back in person in 2022 saw over 300 students in under an hour, with one of our more senior Therapy Dogs, Bauer, interacting with each one of these students.

The Therapy Dog Program provides students with the opportunity to destress, socialize, and be connected with resources that can continue to support them during their time here at Carleton. Our Handlers are incredibly proud to be part of this program, and we are often getting asked if others can join our team. With more funding, we will be able to continue to expand our program and further support our students’ mental health and wellness journeys.

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