Dr Colleen Anne Dell & Maria Cruz on Paws Your Stress at USask

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Updated on 21 January 2021

You may have heard of therapy dog sessions aimed at providing students with comfort and support away from the stresses of university life.

Paws Your Stress is a fantastic program at the University of Saskatchewan that launched in 2015 in coordination with campus Peer Health and St. John Ambulance (Saskatoon).

The program features therapy dog-handler teams from across the Saskatoon community who visit the university to provide a welcome opportunity for students to destress.

Paws Your Stress embraced a new virtual reality in 2020 when coronavirus swept the world, quickly moving to an online setting to ensure students still had access to their program.

We spoke to Dr Colleen Anne Dell, who is the creator of Paws Your Stress at USask, and Maria Cruz, who is the co-coordinator of the program, to learn more about the logistics of running such an initiative, the benefits to students as well as coronavirus has forced them to adapt to a virtual setting.

1) How did the idea of therapy dog sessions first come about at USask?

Dr Colleen Anne Dell: The University of Saskatchewan PAWS Your Stress Therapy Dog Program began in 2015. It was initiated through my One Health and Wellness lab and is offered in partnership with the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program and Peer Health at USask. Campus supporters of the program include Be Well, What’s Your Cap, Office of the President, Student Health Services, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, and the University Library, as well as the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.

2) What is involved in the average therapy dog session at USask (before COVID)?

Maria Cruz: Since 2015, we delivered our in-person therapy dog program in 1-hour sessions on a bi-weekly basis at various locations on campus from September through April. More frequent visits took place during examination times. Before the start of the fall academic term, we coordinated time slots with the university to determine when and where we could host these sessions. A large number of the sessions took place in common library areas. In preparation for each session, we asked therapy dog/handler teams and Peer Health volunteers to sign up for the events. Then, we connected with USask Communications to advertise the event. On the day of each session, staff from our office and volunteers from USask Peer Health hosted the event. This included the setup and clean-up of the event, and greeting the therapy dog/handler teams upon their arrival. Of course, once the therapy dog/handler teams arrived, it was very easy for us to draw the attention of the campus community.

Dr Colleen Anne Dell: 

We typically had 3 – 4 team attend and 150 students. Peer health was there to share student mental health information, ranging from Canada’s Low Risk Drinking Guidelines through to other ways to de-stress during the academic term. We were also involved is side projects, like turning the LRDH into a door hanger to distribute. Bulldog-shaped stress balls were also a hit at our events. We also designed a door hanger for Canada’s Low Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines, when cannabis was legalized in 2018.
 At various points through the program’s evolution, we have evaluated our intended outcomes.

The program’s primary goal is to offer students love and support through visits with the therapy dog teams. We undertake evaluations to ensure that it remains evidence-informed, and so that we can provide the best program possible for the USask community.

The first year of the program, for example, we published our pilot evaluation results in the Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychology. We found that “Love is understood as having reciprocal love for the dogs and gaining positive feelings from visiting with them. Support is understood as distressing and relaxing by interacting with the dogs”.

We also held one-off events at the request of student groups on campus, including most recently on campus working with USask Huskies Athletics for a fundraiser and introducing the program to students in the School of Medicine.

3) How did the students react to their therapy dog sessions (before COVID)?

Maria Cruz: As with programs on other campuses across North America and elsewhere, the reactions were very positive!

Students reported that interactions with the dogs helped them destress and take a mental health break.

They also felt more supported, loved, and happy after the visits.

4) What was involved in moving the dog therapy into an online setting?

Maria Cruz: With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew that we wanted to make the transition to online programming so that students could continue to connect with the therapy dog teams, but we honestly didn’t know exactly how to do that. So we looked at what we already had that was online, which was a strong social media presence, and a long list of St. John Ambulance therapy dog/handler teams. We drew on these resources during the Spring of 2020, and posted on our social media various therapy dog videos and photos that also included mental health care tips. This included encouraging hand washing or taking walks. In total we created 28 Facebook livestreams and 60 pre-recorded videos from April – June, 2020.

Dr Colleen Anne Dell: 

A combined process-outcome evaluation followed by a needs assessment was done over the initial three-month period to determine whether our team’s activities contributed to achieving the program’s goals. The feedback we received shaped how we moved into the Fall term and the introduction of the ZOOM meeting sessions.

Maria Cruz: To envision what an online therapy dog session will look like, we connected with the University of Minnesota, who had already made that transition via Zoom. They showed us how the Breakout Rooms function works, where participants can split off from the main session into smaller groups. In each breakout room, dogs and other animals were present for attendees to interact with. We decided to model our program in the same way. We had to ensure that our team was fully equipped to make this transition. We have one part-time employee and a USask graduate student assisting with the program, and a larger team of 4 individuals who guide the program.

The transition online took a lot of effort on everyone’s part, including the therapy dog handlers and getting comfortable with the technology.

Dr Colleen Anne Dell: Additionally, the lead member of our team had some online therapy dog visiting experiences to draw upon. I have been managing an active therapy dog Facebook community of approximately 2,000 followers for the past 7 years (@AnnaBelleSubiesAdventures). I am also the co-lead with Dr. Darlene Chalmers on a prison Canine Assisted Learning program, started in 2016, where bi-monthly video conference visits with participants take place following the in-person component of the program.

5) What are some of the challenges of using Zoom instead of in-person sessions?

Maria Cruz: One of the initial challenges we had to navigate was for handlers to showcase their dog while using electronic devices. Some handlers expressed concern over how to get their dog to sit still for the 1-hour session, or how they could use their webcam to follow the dog around. For those who use the Zoom app on their mobile device, they noted that their full view of all attendees is limited in comparison to using Zoom on a desktop, which restricted their view of all attendees and their reactions to what the dog was doing. However, with time, experience, and by having handlers sharing tips that work best for them, we observed that handlers have managed this challenge by figuring out what works best for them.

On an ongoing basis, we observed attendees and handlers experience technical difficulties during some sessions, which is expected with online programming. For example, some attendees have reported issues connecting to the audio of the Zoom session, and handlers have lost Internet connection during a session.

6) What is involved in the average Zoom session now?

Maria Cruz: The main tasks involve coordination between the attendees and therapy dog handlers. In preparation for a session, we advertise the visits on our social media platforms and USask Communications to register at our website www.therapydogs.ca. Registrants then receive a link to the Zoom meeting. On the day of the visit, we send reminder emails to those who are registered so that they have convenient access to the link. In consideration of the students’ hectic exam period in December, we did not make registration mandatory but rather shared a link to the Zoom session on our social media page for all of our followers to see and easily join in.

We also need to communicate with handlers before and during each session. Before the scheduled event, handlers sign up to volunteer 1 hour of their time. During the event, we ask that they sign in to the session 10 minutes before the advertised start time so that they could be assigned to the room and for us to provide any technical support.

For the session, two of our staff members are present to answer any questions from the participants and provide any support to the handlers. Ten minutes prior to the scheduled session, these staff navigate the handlers to their breakout rooms, which host a variety of dogs for the 1-hour session. Depending on the number of handler/dog teams present, we host 2 or 3 Breakout Rooms. Once the attendees are in the meeting, they let us know which room they would like to visit and we direct them to the Breakout Room function on Zoom so that their screen shows the room with the dogs they would like to visit. Attendees are then free to interact with the handlers through speaking aloud or chat function, or simply watch the dogs. During the 1-hour visit, they are also welcome to move between rooms. We also have a break-out room designated for any supports students may need, though to date it has not been used.

Dr Colleen Anne Dell: 

We have also been known to host more than St. John Ambulance Therapy Dogs on our zoom visits when other animals are in the house – including a breaded dragon and cat. Working with the animals online is new for most everyone, including the therapy dogs, but with lots of praise and dedicated time with their handlers it is going well.

7) How have the students reacted to this new medium for dog therapy?

Maria Cruz: We are currently undergoing an evaluation to figure this out but so far the response has been favourable. The number of attendees, however, is much lower than in-person sessions. One of the things we noticed is attendee enthusiasm during the online sessions — this was interpreted by having students attend multiple sessions, students asking questions about the dogs, the smiles on their faces (if they have their video on), and some of the stories they shared. For example, at one session in November, a student shared how her dog had recently passed away and showed photos of them. They ended up staying for the entire 1-hour session.

At one of our most recent sessions during the December exam period, a student briefly stopped by a session for a study break, 30 minutes before their exam started. Another student mentioned that while they were not fully participating in the session, they used the discussion between handlers and the attendees as background noise while they were doing their homework. They mentioned this made them feel connected, as if they were not alone at home.

8) What are the benefits of having online therapy dog sessions?

Maria Cruz: The main benefit is the relatively easy access for students to visit with the therapy dogs they have met in-person or for new students to still have that experience. Although many enjoy directly asking or typing out questions to the handlers, the sessions are not very hands-on, as students can simply sit and watch the dogs, or use the audio from the session as background noise while they are doing homework.

With the pandemic, domestic and international students may be continuing courses in their home communities or even isolating by themselves, so providing that connection to the campus community is essential.

We also aim to meet students where they are at, which is why they always have access to our online library of therapy dog videos.

9) Finally, do you believe this is something all universities and educational institutions should consider?

Maria Cruz: 
We think that any innovative means to deliver mental health resources is important for all educational institutions. University students experience a variety of stressors relating to coursework and extracurricular commitments, and now with the current pandemic, students may be experiencing unique mental health challenges. In line with the conception of the in-person program, we wanted to show our support to students through our online therapy dog program during this challenging time.

Dr Colleen Anne Dell: If a university has the resources to offer online therapy dog programming, it is definitely an option. Though it comes with a lot more administrative work than an in-person program. That said, with people working more online with the pandemic, it may be that online programming will continue after we are back on campus doing therapy dog visits. Maybe it will be a hybrid of in-person and online. We will figure this out, and as we had with the initial transition online, as we gain more experience and better understand the needs of our student community. At the same time, we continue to be creative in what we offer and how. For example, starting next term we will resume monthly online therapy dog meetings for staff and during the holiday break we are doing nap time with the dogs, where the camera will be on the dogs while they nap for a hopefully relaxing attendee experience.

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