The Centre for Initiatives in Education has been running a pilot project with a therapy dog, Blue, who is placed in the administrative office and hosts office hours for students twice per week. Some people say that visiting with the dog 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. Together with Blue’s handler, this fosters a welcoming, supportive environment that can provide a low intensity, yet effective strategy to cope with mental health problems or other stresses. 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. Tangible results are also seen in levels of confidence, social interactions, connectedness, and general satisfaction at Carleton University.
In 2016 researchers at the University of British Columbia (Okanagan) published a study called “Hounds and Homesickness,” which showed that students who have Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) at their disposal on a consistent basis may perceive their university experience as more welcoming, and giving a feeling of “home.” John Binfet has also produced a second study (August 2017) demonstrating the positive effects of group-administered AAT on university students’ well-being, and indicating that spending as little as 20 minutes with a therapy dog reduces stress and homesickness, and increases affinity for campus community.
Ultimately the goal of the university is to foster academic success, but we know now that positive mental health and well-being contributes largely to academic success. Currently we need more low-level supports added to reduce strain on high-level supports that may not be necessary in every student case. Pet therapy can be an efficient and effective way to address homesickness, transition (for those who miss their pets at home), loneliness, and balance. Anything that escalates to higher levels of mental health issues can be intervened and supported by a professional staff member who is competent in dealing with mental health concerns.
We know there is a general trend/desire for more time with canines on campus. Students consistently cite dogs as a way to draw them in, as well as something that contributes to their well-being. Therapy dogs offer a way to connect with peers, share knowledge, and presents a unique opportunity for professional staff to make a connection that is unparalleled within a typical professional interaction.
Moreover, we know from evidence-based research that contact with an animal results in tangible improvements in mood, reduced stress, and it is highly meaningful to students.
Funds raised will be used to support another year that the therapy dog project can continue to grow and thrive, and maintain its reputation as a viable strategy for mental health and well-being on campus. Funding will assist to support initiatives including:
- Continuation of programming with Blue, the Therapy Dog and potential addition of second Therapy Dog to provide more accessible hours to students
- Regularly scheduled visits with therapy dogs on campus and guest appearances by request
- Allocation of space on campus
- Expansion of aesthetics and safety protocols (i.e. identifying red therapy vests for dogs, posters indicating where dogs will be on premises, liaisons with Risk Management, etc.)
- Enhancement of spaces used to include comfortable seating, pillows, cleaning supplies, etc.
- Community Development initiatives to increase awareness and use of the program (i.e. promotional campaigns)
- Research and development:
- Written proposal of a volunteer program providing opportunities for Carleton community members to become involved, including the development of a tailored training program and scheduling/coordination of dog handlers
- Assessment of Student engagement, enjoyment, and benefits received from the program
- Ongoing program evaluation and improvement
AAA (also known as “pet therapy”) is a low-tech, low-cost, low-risk intervention that reduces strain on other resources. AAA is a proactive, accessible, and efficient support that can help prevent, manage, or reduce stress. Some students may have faced barriers (internal or external), and AAT can contribute to early identification of students who may need additional support and connection to resources.
Consistency in availability and experience allows students to form a more meaningful relationship that can contribute to campus morale and bonding with the animal on an individual basis, increasing institutional connectedness. The quieter, more intimate setting leaves space for the dog to provide a positive effect on students’ self-esteem because their love is unconditional and non-judgmental. The intentionality behind this strategy provides a space for students to go who may not reach out elsewhere.
The connection between humans and animals is undisputed, and we know from experience that at a base level dogs garner attention to mental health awareness campaigns, draw students in to a service/experience, and serve as a symbol of anti-stigma, promoting conversation around mental health on campus. It not only provides all the benefits listed above, but also bolsters community, connection between campus partners, and morale for the student body. Funding for this project will ensure we can provide a quality experience moving forward with future programs, monitored and delivered by a professional staff member to ensure a consistent experience, and the advocate for the welfare of the animal(s), and safety of everyone on campus.